- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 23, 2003

TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 23 (UPI) — Israel's dovish Labor Party said Sunday the latest talks on joining the new government that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is forming "have ended" and that conditions for joining it, "have not been created."

The announcement came several hours after Sharon's Likud Party concluded a coalition agreement with the hawkish National Religious Party, and after a telephone conversation between Sharon and Labor Chairman Amram Mitzna.

According to a Labor Party statement, Sharon told Mitzna he could not commit himself to continue the peace process, accept the creation of a Palestinian state, nor evacuate settlements.

In closed meetings with Mitzna last week, Sharon seemed ready to move toward peace, and accepted the eventual creation of an independent Palestinian state. However, he declined to publicly commit himself to those policies.

Mitzna has a long record of mistrust in Sharon and some commentators Friday warned him not to fall into the prime minister's honey trap.

The party's statement quoted Mitzna as having told Sharon the Labor Party could not be in a government whose basic guidelines fail to promise "a real" peace process.

However, "The minute we would see a real breakthrough in the political arena we shall be there."

Early Sunday, representatives of Sharon's Likud Party signed the coalition agreement with the NRP. NRP leaders said the agreement provides the Cabinet would decide the issue of Palestinian statehood.

One of the NRP's leaders, former minister Yitzhak Levy said his party has written the Likud, "We oppose Palestinian statehood and shall do everything that there would not be a Palestinian state."

The Likud is now trying to conclude the coalition agreement with the centrist, secular Shinui. The NRP, Shinui and the Likud together have the 61 votes needed to win the Knesset's confidence.

Shinui leader, Tommy Lapid, said Sunday he wants Sharon to commit himself to accept U.S. President George W. Bush's plan for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and a planned roadmap for peace.

"The Bush plan is the only way to stop terror and reach an agreement with the Palestinians," Lapid insisted.

However, he expressed readiness to compromise on how Sharon would make that commitment.

"I think we can suffice …if it won't be (written) in the government's guidelines but the prime minister would say so on the Knesset rostrum on the day the government is formed, (providing) the text is coordinated with us," he said.

The NRP, which has held several trilateral negotiation sessions with the Likud and Shinui, appeared willing to go along with such an arrangement.

"Our problem is not what the prime minister says…. He does not determine. The government and the Knesset decide," NRP legislator - and candidate for Cabinet seat - Zevulun Orlev said.

Orlev noted that Sharon says the issue of Palestinian statehood may rise "only after terror ceases, only after there are reforms" in the Palestinian Authority. It is something relegated to the distant future, "not actual…. with no basis in current reality and therefore we are not frightened by it," Orlev added.

Such statements seem to concern Labor's doves. Labor served under Sharon until last Oct. 30, and says he did not move toward peace.

"It seems he wants to keep all options just as he did in the previous unity government," the Labor Party said.

The party's Leadership Bureau is to meet Sunday afternoon to discuss the situation.


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