Sharon playing musical chairs with coalition

By Aaron Klein

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday invited the moderate Labor Party and several religious parties into his governing coalition and warned ministers in his Likud Party that he’ll call early elections if they try to block any partnership, which sources tell WND could be completed within days.

The alliance being considered with Labor would ensure strong backing for Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four isolated West Bank settlements by 2005. Several nationalist ministers have been trying to topple Sharon’s narrow government, initiating a series of no-confidence votes that call for new elections. A vote yesterday, which resulted in a tie, came the closest to succeeding.

Some sticking points remain in coalition negotiations, including wrangling over senior portfolios, particularly the job of foreign minister, which sources tell WND Shimon Peres has demanded.

The main threat to such a union appears to be coming from the Likud ministers who opposed Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal in a recent referendum and other senior Likud ministers who, fearing they’ll lose their jobs, have threatened to stir a rebellion in the party.

Sharon warned Likud leaders yesterday that he’ll call early elections if they make good on their threats.

He told his fellow ministers that he has no choice but to expand the coalition by bringing in Labor.

“But if you don’t want this or that, we can go to elections, that’s the way it is,” Sharon said. “I am saying this in the clearest possible way: This situation cannot continue.”

Peres is expected to accept Sharon’s invitation later today, setting the stage for negotiations to begin.

Sharon turned to Labor, which supports the Gaza withdrawal, after facing increasing opposition from nationalist coalition partners and hardliners in the Likud Party. Defections have deprived him of his parliamentary majority.

Many Likud hardliners still oppose the union.

“If the Labor Party enters the coalition, it will bring a cancer into the Likud,” said Uzi Cohen, a member of the party’s Central Committee.

Senior Likud ministers fear for their jobs, particularly Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also has expressed concern that Labor would hamper his economic reforms, but a close adviser to Netanyahu told WND exclusively that the finance minister has already secured the continuation of his government position with Sharon.

Peres said yesterday he would make a series of demands before joining the government, including resuming contacts with the Palestinians as the withdrawal proceeds.

Despite their differences, officials from both sides said the main sticking point is what post Peres will fill. But a source close to the negotiations said Peres is “desperate to get back into the government. Sharon knows that, and he’s playing it for what it’s worth.”

Sharon last night also invited the religious parties Shas and United Torah Judaism to join his government, even in the event of a unity coalition with Labor, but they said they would only consider it if Sharon kicked the secular Shinui party out of his current coalition.

“Sharon approached me outside the Knesset plenum and asked what would happen if he invited us to join the coalition,” UTJ Knesset Member Moshe Gafni said. “When I replied that we cannot join a coalition with Shinui, he asked whether we would be ready to join without Shinui, and I said yes.”