JERUSALEM - In an alliance of Israel's two most-experienced political figures, the Labor Party of Shimon Peres yesterday became almost certain to join the government led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Likud, and promised to support Sharon's plan to dismantle Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.
Several procedural hurdles remain before a new coalition officially comes into being, but the new Cabinet could be announced this week.
Labor's entry into the government would save Sharon from having to call early national elections and give him a far better chance of carrying out his plan to withdraw Israeli forces from Gaza and dismantle settlements there.
If he can maintain support in parliament, Sharon intends to dismantle all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank between July and September.
A changing climate
The possible alliance of Likud and Labor seems part of a new, changing climate for Israelis and Palestinians. It is being attributed to Sharon's apparent seriousness about a Gaza withdrawal, the death last month of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the greater flexibility shown by Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's successor as head of the Palestinian Authority.
However, leaders of the Jewish settlement movement have made clear their opposition to Sharon's withdrawal plan. They called on settlers yesterday to resist any attempt to move them, even at the risk of going to prison.
Pinchas Wallerstein, a well-known spokesman for the movement, advocated in letters to fellow settlers that they break the law rather than obey orders to leave. The leading settlers organization in the West Bank, the Yesha Settlers' Council, endorsed his call for resistance.
Speaking on Army Radio, Wallerstein called Sharon's withdrawal plan an "immoral crime."
"If someone who opposes this law has to go to prison, I am ready to go to prison," he said.
Without support from Peres' center-left Labor Party, Sharon would have little chance of taking radical action in Gaza. He lost his majority in parliament when far-right parties quit his government to protest the proposed Gaza withdrawal, and a centrist party, Shinui, was forced out of the coalition when it voted against large government grants to religious schools.
It was fear of seeing the Gaza withdrawal plan collapse that led Peres and Labor into partnership with Sharon, bringing together two of Israel's elder statesmen.
Peres, 86, has served in Cabinet posts in 12 governments and has twice been prime minister, from 1984 to 1986 in an earlier "unity" government and from 1995 to 1996 after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. His political career stretches back to the 1950s, when he was a protege of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister. But he also led the Labor Party to five defeats at the polls.
He served as foreign minister during Sharon's first term as prime minister, in 2001-2002, when the violence of the Palestinian uprising and of Israeli army raids largely undid the peace accords Peres helped secure in the early 1990s.
Sharon, 71, has fought or commanded in all of Israel's wars was one of the architects of the settlement policy that he is now partly reversing.
He and Peres have expressed respect for each other's contributions to the state, even though the they were long political foes. Sharon remains best known for his aggressiveness as a general and defense minister, Peres for his skills as a political infighter, his political longevity and his oft-stated optimism about the future of the Middle East.
But the new Labor-Likud coalition is also a testament to the failed policies of the two parties.
"The left thought it could make the Palestinians a decent offer, an offer they couldn't refuse, and we'll have peace," said Shlomo Avineri, a political science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "They tried in 2000, fell flat on their face and we got the uprising.
"The right wing has been saying, 'Hit the Palestinians hard enough on the head and eventually they will cave in,'" he said. "We've been hitting them, and they haven't caved in. This disengagement is the third option, a centrist option, and that is why both sides have a common interest they never shared before."
Uri Dromi, a former political aide to Peres and former head of the Government Press Office, criticized the Labor leader for refusing to step aside and let younger party figures take over.
"Is this the last chance for peace?" Dromi asked. "For these two, Sharon and Peres, yes. This is the last time in their lifetimes that they can have an impact. Sharon wants to go down in history as some kind of peacemaker, contrary to his image of warmonger, and Peres just wants to go on forever."
The two men have distinctly different goals: Peres has spoken of the Gaza withdrawal as only one of many necessary steps by Israel toward a final peace settlement, including a broader withdrawal from the West Bank. Sharon has made clear that the Gaza withdrawal should be Israel's last major concession.
"The question, sooner or later, will be, 'Is Gaza the end of the story or the beginning?" Dromi said. "If Gaza is the end, then how can this partnership last? There is room for optimism, but we must eventually face the decision of, do we stay in the territories or pull out of them?"
A sense of purpose
Avineri was more optimistic about the prospects for a new unity government.
"In the past, they have been focused on not making decisions," he said. "They were designed to fulfill a do-nothing consensus so they could blame each other for the failures. This is the first time we have a national unity government focused on doing something."
He added, "When Sharon started talking about painful concessions and dismantling settlements, nobody took him seriously. But he has put his political life on the line, fought his own party and is now restructuring his government. The conventional wisdom of Israeli politics since 1967 is, don't make waves. Now, they're making waves."
Many Labor Party members criticized Peres for staying in Sharon's government in 2001-2002, saying that Sharon used Labor to prove he was a moderate even as he relied on military force.
In March 2002, Peres told a group of foreign reporters, "As long as there is the slightest chance for a cease-fire, I shall stay and try to achieve it. We don't need a war to make peace. We need peace to prevent war."
Sharon, dismissive of negotiations, countered the same day: "The aim is to increase the number of losses on the other side. Only after they've been battered will we be able to conduct talks."
Jockeying for seats
Labor holds 19 seats in the 120-member parliament, and the party's support would give Sharon a total of 59, two short of a majority. The prime minister is trying to persuade at least one ultra-Orthodox party to join the coalition.
In contentious negotiations, Likud has promised Labor eight Cabinet seats, including the Interior Ministry, which oversees police. Peres failed to secure the position of foreign minister, but under the tentative agreement would become second deputy prime minister, in charge of disengagement.
That position would give him much of the traditional authority of foreign minister, including the right to conduct negotiations on the Gaza withdrawal.