Sharon wins key vote on alliance for Gaza plan
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won a crucial Likud party vote on Thursday that will let him bring opposition Labour into his shattered coalition and power forward a plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.
Averting a likely snap election, the rightist Likud's Central Committee reversed an earlier decision by voting 62 to 38 percent to allow talks on a unity government.
It was a blow for hardline party rebels, who oppose giving up the Gaza Strip or any land captured in the 1967 war, and tried to prevent an alliance with pro-withdrawal Labour as a way to stop it.
"This is a good opportunity for the prime minister," said Gila Gamliel, a Likud lawmaker.
Western countries, buoyed by new hope of Middle East peace talks after Yasser Arafat's death last month, back the Gaza withdrawal as a step towards a settlement. But Palestinians fear it is a ruse to cement Israel's hold on the West Bank.
Underlining the enduring conflict, a Gaza militant leader survived a missile strike in Israel's first assassination attempt in the occupied territories since Arafat died on Nov 11. A missile later hit an explosives-laden truck in northern Gaza.
Likud hardliners failed in a last-minute bid to stop the Likud vote in Tel Aviv. They oppose Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza and evacuate four of 120 settlements in the West Bank next year, calling it a "victory for terror".
Thursday's non-binding vote reverses the decision of the Central Committee in August to reject bringing dovish Labour into the coalition. Members were also asked to authorise coalition talks with two ultra-Orthodox parties.
The risk of elections, almost two years early, appeared to have persuaded party members. Voters yearning for political stability might have taken out their anger on Likud by reducing its 40-seat strength in the 120-member parliament.
Coalition talks could start as early as Friday, though Labour still has to agree on terms for joining an alliance with Likud and suffers its own internal rifts.
"I am struggling to achieve a national unity government -- nothing else," said Labour leader and veteran peacemaker Shimon Peres. "Everything else is trivial."
Sharon's coalition has been whittled down to a minority government with the departure of ultranationalist parties over opposition to his Gaza plan. He ousted the secularist Shinui party last week after it voted against the 2005 budget.
An alliance with Labour, the second biggest party in parliament, could ensure a stable coalition. Sharon now needs a majority to pass the budget by March to avoid automatic elections.
Nicknamed "The Bulldozer" for his aptitude at ploughing through opposition, Sharon has also been lifted by fresh optimism that peace talks with the Palestinians might resume after a Jan. 9 election for a successor to Arafat.
Sharon has said he might be willing to scale back Israeli army sweeps if militants halted attacks in a four-year-old revolt, but there has been a resurgence in violence in the Gaza Strip this week after a relative lull.
The head of the Popular Resistance Committees, Jamal Abu Samhadana, and two other militants survived a missile strike in Gaza by jumping out of their car moments before it was destroyed. They sufferred only light injuries.
"Assassination attempts, even if they succeed, won't weaken the resistance, but only strengthen it. We will continue fighting until we liberate all Palestinian land," Samhadana said.
A missile later hit a truck carrying explosives outside the home of a militant leader in northern Gaza, causing a huge blast.