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Sharon Eyes New Coalition With Labor

JERUSALEM — Israeli politics were thrown into greater chaos than usual this week as Prime Minister Sharon began talks to widen his governing coalition, sparking an open rebellion within his own Likud party.

Sharon surprised his colleagues last week by announcing that he would be opening coalition talks this week with Labor Party leader Shimon Peres. The announcement followed a series of shocks that threatened the stability of his minority government. Sharon is said by aides to be planning a unity government that includes Labor, Likud and the secularist Shinui party, aiming for a coalition that will help him advance the Gaza disengagement plan. The plan faces stiff obstacles in his current, right-wing coalition.

As a backup, Sharon is considering bringing in the ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, in place of either Labor or Shinui. Each of the three candidates, Labor, Shinui and the ultra-Orthodox bloc, holds between 15 and 21 Knesset seats; thus any two of the three, combined with Likud’s 40, would guarantee Sharon a stable majority in the 120-seat house.

His dilemma is that each of the possible partners is anathema to at least one of the others. A sizable group of Likud members refuses to sit with Labor and wants the ultra-Orthodox brought in instead. But Shinui is expected to refuse to sit with the ultra-Orthodox. The dilemma is unlikely to be resolved before the Knesset leaves for its August recess.

Sharon’s government was reduced to minority status in mid-June when he fired the two ministers of the far-right National Union party in order to win a Cabinet vote on his disengagement plan. He was expected to govern without a majority through the fall, counting on Labor and smaller parties to back him on individual votes. A technicality in the election law makes it virtually impossible for the Knesset to oust him even if he loses his majority. He was expected to invite Labor into his coalition sometime next year, as the September 2005 date for disengagement approaches.

Last week, however, he barely survived a no-confidence vote on his economic policy, eking out a 56-56 tie. That, aides admitted, convinced him that he would be unable to govern for long without a stable majority. Compounding his troubles, the Supreme Court ruled last week that the next general election must be held in 2006, a year earlier than expected. This guaranteed that Peres, Labor’s 81-year-old chairman, would face a leadership challenge in the months ahead, making it harder for him to join a Sharon-led coalition.

Sharon and Peres held their initial meeting Monday morning. Afterward, Peres quickly won his party’s authorization to form a negotiating team, with only a handful opposed. Sharon, however, returned to his Likud Knesset caucus and found it in turmoil, with at least 17 of the party’s 40 lawmakers openly declaring themselves opposed to a coalition with Labor. Opposition was led by Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who declared that a coalition with Labor and Shinui would drag the Likud sharply to the left and leave the party’s voters feeling betrayed come election time. “Don’t mortgage the party’s future,” Shalom urged Sharon.

Shalom has the most to lose personally if Labor joins, since Peres is expected to demand the Foreign Ministry. Instead of bringing Labor into the coalition, Shalom and others urged Sharon to reach out to the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Additionally, opponents noted that the National Religious Party, the junior partner in the current minority government, likely would bolt if Labor joins. That would leave Sharon in command of an all-secular coalition, which is anathema to much of the Likud base.

Sharon promptly let it be known Tuesday that he was inviting the ultra-Orthodox party leaders for coalition talks. That, however, sparked a rebellion in Shinui, which views secularism — meaning, in large part, keeping the ultra-Orthodox out of government — as one of its core principles.

Shinui’s bargaining power is considerably weakened right now, however, following a bizarre scandal that erupted last week when one of its top leaders, National Infrastructure Minister Yosef Paritzky, was revealed on tape apparently plotting to smear the reputation of another Shinui leader, Avraham Poraz.

Sharon promptly fired Paritzky from the Cabinet, and his Shinui colleagues are seeking to ostracize him from the party caucus, but the affair has embarrassed the party. Ethical government is Shinui’s other core principle. The affair also reduces Shinui’s reliable voting strength by one to 14 members, further weakening its bargaining power.

One group of Likud rebels this week offered to guarantee Sharon a “security belt,” promising to back him in future no-confidence votes — excluding votes on disengagement — if he abandons his unity talks with Labor. Sharon replied by threatening to call early elections, but he is said to be considering the offer privately, if it is in writing and includes support on disengagement.

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