Likud, Labour begin coalition talks
Israel's opposition Labour party began talks on Saturday with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud party on joining his coalition, a partnership aimed at promoting a planned Gaza withdrawal.
The meeting began hours after Labour leader Shimon Peres received a green light for negotiations from his party's Central Committee. Peres told reporters a deal to establish a unity government could be clinched "within days."
Sharon needs Labour to avoid an early election after his biggest coalition partner, the centrist Shinui party, bolted over a state budget dispute. He won approval from Likud's Central Committee on Thursday to begin talks with Labour.
Labour and Likud teams held late-night talks, which a senior Israeli official said would "set the ground" for a meeting between Peres and the prime minister, long-time friends and political rivals.
Peres said earlier he expected Labour would join forces with Sharon to push forward a plan to "disengage" from conflict with the Palestinians by evacuating all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank in 2005.
"The will of the people... is to have a unity government in which its main issue and goal is to carry out the (Gaza) pullout," Peres told reporters in Tel Aviv. "If we join the government and see there's no disengagement... we'll leave."
"But will we leave if there will be another step toward peace after the pullout? Of course not," he said.
LABOUR LIKELY TO PRESS FOR PEACE
Labour's entry into Sharon's shattered coalition could also help restart stalled peace talks after Palestinians vote on Jan. 9 for a successor to the late President Yasser Arafat.
Sharon phoned Peres on Friday to invite the center-left Labour to join after Likud members voted to overturn the right-wing party's earlier ban on negotiating an alliance.
Sharon told his party it had a choice between going to early elections -- and an uncertain political future -- or supporting the entry of Labour to stabilize the government and press ahead with his Gaza plan.
The senior official told Reuters: "It will be a rather quick process -- time is of the essence."
But haggling over ministry portfolios, differences over the budget and the entry of two Orthodox Jewish parties could delay a deal. Peres, 81, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Sharon, 76, an ex-general who once championed the settler movement, have forged such an alliance before. Peres served as foreign minister under a Sharon-led unity government from 2001 to 2002.
This time, Sharon is expected to keep the top portfolios in Likud hands while offering Peres the post of deputy prime minister, political sources said.
Polls show most Israelis favor parting with impoverished Gaza, but hard-liners describe any pullout as a "reward for terrorism." Palestinians fear it is a ruse to cement Israel's hold on the West Bank, where the vast majority of settlers live.
"Disengaging from Gaza is not easy," Peres said. "It's hard to evacuate settlers and settlements. The price is peace. We are joining (the government) in order to make peace."
The results of coalition negotiations would still need to be approved by Labour's Central Committee before the party can join Sharon's government.