- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 21 (UPI) — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel's hawkish Likud Party and the chairman of the dovish Labor Party agreed Friday to continue discussing the prospects of forming a coalition.

Meanwhile, representatives of the Likud, the centrist and secular Shinui and the hawkish National Religious Party completed drafting a coalition agreement, said Eyal Arad, a member of the Likud negotiating team, to United Press International.

That joining of forces means Sharon can already form a more narrow coalition that would have the support of 61 members in the 120-seat Knesset, the Israeli parliament. But Sharon is seeking a broader coalition, and thus his efforts with Labor leader Amram Mitzna. Friday marked his third meeting with Labor since the Jan. 28 elections, in which Likud's major opposition won 19 seats in the new Knesset to Likud's own 38 seats.

The two leaders talked for a total of two hours at the prime minister's office in Tel Aviv. They interrupted their joint sessions for separate consultations with their own people which totaled two more hours, a source close to Sharon said.

The meeting adjourned as the Jewish Sabbath approached at 5 p.m. There was no breakthrough, though a statement came out of the prime minister's office that said the meeting was "held in a good atmosphere, was practical and will continue Saturday night."

Sharon seemed to Laborites to be very forthcoming in a meeting he had with Mitzna Tuesday night. On Friday the two "went into details," a well-placed source told UPI.

Yediot Aharonot's diplomatic correspondent, Shimon Schifer, who has had close contacts with Sharon, Friday quoted the prime minister as acknowledging, "It is impossible to solve the confrontation with the Palestinians if the government comprises the extremist elements in the political system."

Sharon reportedly added: "Does anybody really believe it is possible to keep on holding (the West Bank towns of) Jenin and Nablus forever? Does anybody think the world would agree that millions of Palestinians, millions of human mouths, get their food through international organizations? I do not think so."

Turning to Israel's deteriorating economy he said, "Without a political settlement, it will collapse."

Such comments would clearly please Israeli doves. However, critics suggested Mitzna wanted and should seek clear, binding commitments from Sharon.

"In principle Mitzna doesn't believe Arik," the Maariv newspaper Friday quoted an unnamed source close to Mitzna. Arik is Sharon's nickname.

That lack of confidence goes back to the 1982 Lebanon War when Mitzna was a general and Sharon defense minister. Mitzna broke army discipline and went over Sharon's head to the then-Prime Minister Menahem Begin to thrash Sharon's credibility over handling the operation. Sharon later resigned his post after an investigation into killings of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Chatilla camps.

Haaretz newspaper columnist Yoel Marcus Friday reminded Mitzna not to fall in for Sharon.

"There's a big difference between Sharon the talker and Sharon the signer. … The assumption that the Sharon we've been looking at for two years is going to be a new Sharon seems unlikely."

Talking of Mitzna he added: "If I were in his shoes, I'd stick to my pledge not to join a unity government and take good care not to be hooked by Sharon's sweet-talk."

In recent days there were suggestions Mitzna seek written commitments from Sharon and a time table for moving towards a settlement with the Palestinians. As of Friday afternoon there was no sign he got it.

Sharon opposes timetables, arguing that progress should be determined by meeting earlier conditions, not just letting the clock tick.

Sharon has also opposed public statements about planned concessions. A source close to the prime minister Friday reiterated that any concessions Sharon makes before talks begin would be the starting point in eventual talks with the Palestinians.

However, the source added, the fact meetings will resume Saturday night, after the Sabbath ends, means the issue of confidence "doesn't stop them from holding long and through talks."

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