Sharon strikes deal with Labor Party, giving boost to Gaza plan

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 18-Dec-04 | Author: Steven Erlanger| Source: International Herald Tribune

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, right, welcomes then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, left, prior to a Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem in this Nov. 18, 2001 file photo.
JERUSALEM Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel struck a deal Friday night with the opposition Labor Party to join his Likud government, which is likely to ensure that Sharon can carry out his plan to dismantle all Israeli settlements in Gaza and four small ones in the West Bank.

The deal was first reported in the Israeli media, and confirmed by aides to Sharon. An official agreement is expected to be signed Sunday, after the Jewish sabbath. But the deal must first be approved by Labor's central committee, where the debate is likely to be spirited.

The negotiations with Labor were bitter, but preordained to succeed, given Labor's conviction that Sharon's Gaza plan was a crucial step to a final settlement with the Palestinians and could fail without support. While the Gaza plan divided Sharon's Likud party, Labor and other leftist parties vowed to support him so long as he remained committed to pulling settlers out of Gaza.

Sharon is also hoping to bring at least one ultra-Orthodox party into his coalition, probably United Torah Judaism. Another ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, is considering further discussions with Sharon after announcing Thursday that it would not join the government now due to its objections to a unilateral Gaza withdrawal. Coordination with the Palestinians might cause Shas to change its mind.

The Labor Party leader, Shimon Peres, an old friend of Sharon's, will have a new title as deputy prime minister in the prime minister's office, while the current vice prime minister, Ehud Olmert of Likud, will retain his title and his role as prime minister in Sharon's absence. Olmert, one of Sharon's closest allies, reportedly threatened to resign if Peres replaced him.

Labor will get eight cabinet portfolios, including the important Interior Ministry, in charge of investigations into political corruption, including those surrounding Sharon's family. Labor will also get the ministries of housing and construction, infrastructure, tourism and communications.

Peres was unabashedly eager to be back in government at a critical moment for Israel, after the death of Yasser Arafat, when there is a surge of optimism about progress with the Palestinians. He has been a firm supporter of Sharon's Gaza plan, on the theory that if Sharon could break with the settler movement in Gaza, it might be possible to come to terms with the Palestinians, over time, about a territorial compromise in the West Bank.

But Peres's eagerness was also criticized within the party, especially by his main rival, Ehud Barak. Peres also intervened to seal the deal over the head of the party's chief negotiator with Likud, Dalia Itzik. Itzik offended Sharon by suggesting that he wanted Likud to retain the Interior Ministry to protect his family, in particular his son, Omri, who is under investigation. She had earlier said she felt like "a battered spouse" in negotiations with Likud.

Sharon refused to continue negotiations with Labor if Itzik was participating; Peres intervened Friday to meet with the chief Likud negotiator and do a deal, thereby probably offending a number of Labor ministers.

In an interview with Le Figaro that is scheduled to appear Saturday, Peres said: "Even if I'm not entirely in agreement with Sharon, I prefer a mediocre plan supported by a majority of the people to a brilliant plan without the majority to implement it. That's a difference between me and some of my colleagues." But Peres and Sharon will have difficulty holding together on economic issues, with a crucial budget vote necessary before the end of March.

Labor, which has moved away from socialism and has already lost its left wing to a new party, Yahad, is still openly concerned about the poor, the workers and the elderly, and the growing gap between rich and poor that has resulted in part from the free-market policies promoted by Likud and the finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.