Sharon Invites Labor to Join Government

Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon today invited the left-leaning Labor Party to enter talks on joining his conservative governing coalition, a move meant to ensure that the prime minister will be able to move ahead with his plan to relinquish the Gaza Strip.

The 76-year-old Israeli leader made the overture in a telephone call to Shimon Peres, the 81-year-old Labor leader. The two men, whose acquaintance dates back to the earliest days of Israeli statehood, have maintained a close personal friendship despite their ideological differences.

Sharon approached Peres only hours after securing the blessing of the policymaking Central Committee of his conservative Likud Party to open negotiations with Labor and two smaller religious political parties. Earlier this year, the same Likud body had voted to ban such negotiations.

A Likud-Labor coalition would amount to a marriage of some of the country's most fervent hawks with its leading doves. But traditional Israeli political fault lines have been blurred by Sharon's plan to uproot the 21 Jewish settlements, together with four smaller ones in the northern West Bank — an initiative endorsed by Labor but furiously opposed by many within the prime minister's party.

Despite their opposing political views, the two parties have joined forces before. Labor was part of Sharon's governing coalition during 2001 and 2002, and Peres served then as foreign minister.

Israeli news reports have said that if the alliance is sealed, Peres will likely serve as deputy prime minister and perhaps be given high-level responsibilities in connection with the Gaza pullout. Peres said although Labor disagrees with many of Sharon's policies, including his budget plan, it considers the Gaza withdrawal a top priority.

"I think the people expect movement in the direction of peace, and that we pull out of Gaza and the northern West Bank, so that mothers (of soldiers) can breathe a sigh of relief," Peres told Israel Radio.

"There are difficulties ahead — so what?" he added.

The notion of a Sharon-Peres partnership is already being met with grumbling in the ranks of both their parties. Younger rivals in Labor see Peres as seeking to artificially prolong his grip on the party's leadership, while Sharon's right-wing foes are embittered over what they see as his betrayal of the settlement movement he long nurtured.

Several months ago, when Sharon's coalition began to crumble over the Gaza plan, an editorial cartoon in the Haaretz newspaper depicted the two strolling along hand in hand like old lovers, with Peres' head resting on Sharon's shoulder.

"Darling, my children don't like it," the Peres character says ruefully. "Neither do mine," says Sharon.

The prime minister's political base has eroded steadily since he unveiled his Gaza plan last year, even though polls consistently indicate a withdrawal has wide public support. Sharon's coalition shrunk to a mere 40 seats in the 120-member Knesset last week when his main ally, the secular rights party Shinui, deserted the coalition in a dispute over funding earmarked for the ultra-Orthodox community.

The Palestinian political scene, meanwhile, was roiled by a new flurry of reports over the on-again off-again candidacy of jailed Palestinian presidential aspirant Marwan Barghouti.

Barghouti, a firebrand militia leader serving five life terms in an Israeli prison, had at first announced he would stay out of the race to replace Yasser Arafat, who died Nov. 11, and then reversed himself two weeks ago and announced he was running.

Barghouti's candidacy prompted a barrage of criticism, even from his supporters, who said it would split his Fatah movement in advance of the Jan. 9 elections. Fatah has formally given its backing to former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, 69, a moderate figure who is well regarded by Israel and the United States.

Barghouti's wife, Fadwa, and his campaign manager, Ahmed Ghneim, visited Barghouti at his prison in southern Israel to brief him on developments, giving rise to press reports that the charismatic 45-year-old had decided once and for all to drop out of the race.

But Ghneim, contacted by telephone, said: "There is no change."

Although violence in the West Bank and Gaza has fallen off since Arafat's death, scattered confrontations continued to flare.

Israeli soldiers fatally shot a 7-year-old girl in the Khan Younis refugee camp in southern Gaza today. The army said troops were responding to mortar fire from the camp that injured four Israelis, one of them a child, in the neighboring Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim.

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