Sharon gets OK to ally with Labor


JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday won the backing of his Likud Party to form a coalition with the opposition Labor Party, enabling him to shore up his shaky government and pursue his plan to withdraw troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip.

Sharon had warned before the party vote that a defeat of his proposal to begin talks with Labor would have led to new elections and put the Gaza withdrawal on hold.

Results announced late yesterday showed that 63 percent of the voters from the 3,000-member Likud Central Committee backed talks to bring Labor and two strictly Orthodox parties into the government. The final count was 1,410 votes in favor and 856 against.

Leaders of the dovish Labor Party have indicated that they are prepared to join forces with Sharon to push through the Gaza withdrawal, and coalition negotiations are expected to start next week. Talks are also expected to begin with the two ultra-Orthodox parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas.

Sharon's previous coalition crumbled after he fired ministers from a far-right party who opposed the Gaza withdrawal, and a second rightist faction left the government in opposition to the plan. Last week, Sharon ousted the secularist Shinui party after it voted against the 2005 budget in protest of funding for ultra-Orthodox Jews.

That left Sharon with control of only the 40 Likud seats in the 120-member parliament, forcing him to look to Labor and the ultra-Orthodox parties to expand his political base and save his government from collapse.

Likud voted in August against talks with Labor, but Sharon's greatly weakened position since then, and concern among party members that a new election could cost Likud seats, apparently drove many to change their position.

Opponents of the Gaza pullout in the Likud prevailed in a party referendum in May and lobbied against bringing Labor into the government, but nearly all Likud ministers, including influential Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, supported Sharon in yesterday's vote.

A coalition with Labor and ultra-Orthodox parties would give Sharon the necessary support to carry out his "disengagement plan" to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and evacuate four isolated settlements in the West Bank next year. He would also secure enough votes in parliament to pass the budget by March in order to avoid automatic elections.

The Gaza withdrawal plan, endorsed by President Bush, is a central element in renewed diplomatic efforts to resume peace negotiations in the aftermath of the death of Yasser Arafat last month. Sharon has said he is willing to coordinate the pullout with a new Palestinian leadership, and Egypt has agreed to help with security arrangements along its border with the Gaza Strip.

Hanan Crystal, political analyst for Israel Radio, said that Sharon had reasserted control of his party after months of internal turmoil and had cleared the way for the Gaza pullout.

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