Sharon Looks to Form Coalition Government

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned his conservative Likud Party today that forming a new ruling coalition with the leftist Labor Party was the only way to avoid the collapse of the government and early elections.

Sharon said he would try to form new partnerships with Labor and smaller religious parties to keep the government in power long enough to carry out his planned Gaza Strip withdrawal.

"There are two choices: a unity government or holding elections," Sharon said.

His comments, made to a gathering of news editors in Tel Aviv, were aired nationwide and appeared aimed at sending a message to his party.

Sharon's minority government is in a highly delicate position: It controls just one-third of the Knesset, or parliament, after he dumped the Shinui Party over its refusal to support his proposed 2005 budget. Lawmakers soundly defeated the budget Wednesday.

Without Shinui's support, Sharon faces the threat that a no confidence motion could bring down his government.

Shinui's ejection takes effect Friday, which would leave Sharon with 40 of 120 Knesset seats, all belonging to Likud. Two smaller parties, National Union and the National Religious Party, left the coalition in recent months because of their opposition to the Gaza pullout, leaving the secular Shinui as his surviving partner.

Labor Party leaders, who control 22 seats, appear eager to join the government to make sure Sharon carries out the planned withdrawal of settlers and troops from Gaza. However, the prime minister has run into trouble from his party's more conservative wing, which doesn't want to let Labor in.

"There is no other choice," Sharon said. "I think that elections at this time are not what the state of Israel needs, they are not what Likud needs."

Likud's policymaking body, its Central Committee, handed Sharon a setback in August when it voted to head off coalition talks with Labor. Sharon may convene the Central Committee next Thursday to reconsider.

Rebellious Likud members have openly defied the prime minister over his plan to evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the northern West Bank. They fear Labor's inclusion will add pressure to dismantle more settlements in the West Bank.

But early elections also are risky for the party because it could lose seats. It is not clear whether the candidate would be Sharon or someone from the hard-line camp, such as Benjamin Netanyahu.

Opinion polls have shown little public support for elections now.

Sharon seems to stand a better chance of selling a unity government to Likud members if it includes at least one of two ultra-Orthodox parties, United Torah Judaism or Shas. He sought to win United Torah Judaism's support by increasing subsidies for its projects by about $65 million — leading to the budget showdown with Shunui, which seeks greater separation between the government and religion.

Shas likely would be unacceptable to Labor because of the smaller party's opposition to the withdrawal plan. Shas' spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has objected because the pullout would be unilateral and not through joint action with the Palestinians. But Sharon has talked recently of coordinating the withdrawal if a moderate Palestinian leadership emerges.

For months, Israeli political commentators have predicted Sharon's imminent downfall, only to see him survive through one political gambit after another. Some suggested he created the latest crisis to force Likud into accepting a unity government.

"It will become clear whether this was the most brilliant political maneuver of recent years or a shot in his own foot that will spell the end of Sharon's political career," commentator Yossi Verter wrote in the daily Haaretz newspaper.

In his remarks today, Sharon also said that Israel would not carry out strikes against Palestinians if militants refrained from attacks. However, he said Israel would hit first against threats of imminent attack.

The three-week period since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died has been relatively tranquil, though neither side has declared a cease-fire. "If there is quiet, we too will most likely not respond," Sharon said.

Israel has promised to take steps to smooth the way for elections for a new Palestinian Authority president Jan. 9.

Palestinian election officials said today that 10 candidates qualified for the ballot, including Mahmoud Abbas, who replaced Arafat as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and imprisoned uprising leader Marwan Barghouti.

Abbas carried the endorsement of Fatah, the PLO's dominant faction, and was the apparent front-runner until Wednesday, when Barghouti's wife registered the jailed leader as a candidate just before the midnight filing deadline.

As a leader of Fatah's young guard, Barghouti's independent candidacy represents a threat to Abbas and party unity. Fatah leaders denounced Barghouti's decision to run.

The militant Islamic Jihad announced today that it would join Hamas in boycotting the election.

Also today, Rami Hamdallah, secretary-general of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said 1.3 million Palestinians have registered to vote, or 71% of those eligible.

Candidates have until Dec. 15 to withdraw. Campaigning starts Dec. 26.

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Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.