- The Washington Times - Friday, December 10, 2004

TEL AVIV — Israel’s opposition Labor Party signaled yesterday it would join Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s ruling Likud party in a government that will evacuate Jewish settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

“I think at the end of the day there will be a national unity government,” said Yuli Tamir, a prominent Labor lawmaker who has balked in the past at joining Mr. Sharon in a new coalition. “We don’t want to go to elections.”

Labor is set to meet tonight to formally approve talks with Mr. Sharon.

Lawmakers said Labor Chairman Shimon Peres is expected to get a Cabinet portfolio that would put him in charge of overseeing either the withdrawal from settlements or potential peace negotiations.

That would allow Labor to gain a prominent role in dealing with Palestinians without forcing Mr. Sharon to shunt aside any of the top Cabinet ministers in his own party.

Miss Tamir said the party would demand modifications in the 2005 budget as a price for joining the coalition.

However, she acknowledged the top priority of Labor is to help Mr. Sharon’s government survive long enough to carry out the disengagement.

Yesterday’s developments came a day after Mr. Sharon won a crucial vote in his Likud party to pursue a coalition that would include Labor.

The Labor Party controls 22 seats in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, which would give Mr. Sharon a thin majority in the 120-seat parliament together with the 40 seats held by Likud.

A new coalition is expected to include another 5 votes from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party.

Members of Likud also want Mr. Sharon to bring Shas, another ultra-Orthodox party, into the government though the anti-disengagement stance of the Shas spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, is seen complicating the talks.

Labor lawmaker Haim Ramon recently voiced opposition to entering a coalition with any partner that isn’t committed to withdrawing from Gaza.

The party will seek assurances from Mr. Sharon that the disengagement plan will be carried out according to schedule — by the end of next year.

Labor wants Mr. Sharon to rework the budget to restore spending cuts on subsidies for single mothers, retirees and public school lunches.

Dalia Itzik, another Labor lawmaker, said the party would demand Cabinet portfolios giving it a high economic and social profile, such as the Interior Ministry and National Infrastructure Ministry.

Labor lawmakers have agreed to put off until mid-2005 a primary election to determine a new chairman to lead Labor in the next parliamentary election.

A dispute between former Prime Minister Ehud Barak — who is trying to make a political comeback — and Mr. Peres, also a former prime minister, over the primary date had earlier threatened to plunge the party into an internecine battle and delay talks on a coalition with Likud.

Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at Hebrew University, said the negotiations between Labor and Likud are likely to succeed, given the fact that lawmakers like Miss Tamir have come out in favor of it.

“This time they realize it’s time for harsh decisions and, more than ever in the past, their stands are not far away,” he said. “So it’s their last chance.”

But even with a coalition on paper of 67 lawmakers from Likud, Labor and United Torah Judaism, Mr. Sharon could still face political difficulties executing the disengagement plan.

Nearly half of the lawmakers from the Likud party have come out against it. “This isn’t the end of the road,” Mr. Diskin said.

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