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Sharon, Peres seek coalition for Gaza pullout
Updated: 2004-07-13 09:05

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won agreement from veteran opposition leader Shimon Peres Monday to try to forge a unity government that could push through a plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip.

In a warning to rebels in his right-wing Likud party, Sharon threatened to call early elections if they did not back his efforts to broaden the government and ensure the withdrawal.

Palestinian farmers ride past a watchtower along the controversial Israeli security barrier in the West Bank town of Qalqilya, July 12, 2004.  [Reuters] 
Sharon, sapped by the departure of former far-right allies furious at the Gaza plan, invited Peres and his center-left Labor party to look at forming a coalition that could remove Jewish settlers from the occupied territory.

"We will enter negotiations," Peres told Labor parliamentarians after speaking to Sharon. "We must leave Gaza, we must take down the settlements."

Israel's oldest political warhorses, friends for decades despite their rivalry, met at breakfast to discuss forming a coalition. Peres said further negotiations still depended on winning party acceptance Tuesday.

Sharon's initiative for unilateral "disengagement" from conflict with the Palestinians means abandoning all 21 Gaza settlements and four of 120 in the West Bank by late next year. Both territories were captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Israel's cabinet approved the withdrawal project after Sharon fired two far-right ministers, but that cost the former general the majority in parliament he will need next year if he is to push through the phases of the U.S.-backed plan.

In an indication of how vulnerable Sharon has become, the opposition tied his ruling coalition in a no-confidence motion on the government economic policy Monday.


Sharon told Likud party members, suspicious of efforts to woo Peres, that he would have to bring in Labor without sufficient backing from the present coalition.

"If you don't want either, then we have to go to elections," he said. "There will be no choice."

As the price for joining a coalition, Peres, an 80-year-old Nobel peace laureate, has demanded a faster pullout and also wants talks with the Palestinians -- who fear they will get Gaza only at the cost of a stronger Israeli grip on the West Bank.

Insiders said another obstacle was that Peres appeared to want to return to the foreign ministry in a new coalition, but sacking Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom could strengthen opposition to 76-year-old Sharon within his Likud party.

Anger at the possibility that Labor could join the government is already bubbling vigorously in Likud, many of whose members are against giving up any territory and say Sharon's pullout plan would "reward Palestinian terror."

Israeli media said Sharon was also exploring the possibility of inviting ultra-Orthodox parties into the government, a move that would force out a current coalition partner, the secular Shinui party.

Most Israelis would like to part with Gaza, where 7,500 settlers live in heavily guarded enclaves among 1.3 million Palestinians -- but the far-right fiercely opposes it.

Labor and Likud formed a shaky pact in Sharon's first term from 2001-2003, but it fell apart in a row over funding for Jewish settlements.

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