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Sharon plays tough on gaza pullout joins with labour

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Jul. 13, 2004. 06:16 AM
Sharon plays tough on Gaza pullout
Invites rival Labour party to join government
Threatens hawks of own party with snap election call


JERUSALEM - With his hawkish coalition disintegrating over his planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, beleaguered Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon played one of his few remaining cards yesterday, inviting the dovish Labour party to join the government.

And for the extremist rebels of his own right-wing Likud party, Sharon saved the final trump, telling them snap elections are the only alternative if they refuse to climb aboard his strategy to exit Gaza.

Though far from a done deal, analysts described the moves an act of political brinksmanship that ultimately could provide Israel with a stable, centrist leadership to oversee the contentious closing of settlements that disengagement will entail.

"Sharon is dedicated to withdrawal from Gaza at a time when we are witnessing the disintegration of the old parties. Likud is breaking apart and Labour is already broken," said political scientist Gerald Steinberg, director of Bar Ilan University's School of Conflict Resolution and Diplomacy.

"The Israeli public has slowly been moving toward the centre, where neither the old left nor the old right appeal to them. They want withdrawal from Gaza. And this move makes it possible for a unity government to recapture the middle and give it to them."

Israelis have seen unity governments before, most recently during the first 2 1/2 years the bloodiest years, in fact of an intifada now approaching its fourth anniversary.

If it can be rebuilt, this version of a Likud-Labour partnership will come replete with an agenda of withdrawal and popular support that will likely serve as the historic swan-songs for Sharon, 76, and octogenarian Labour Leader Shimon Peres.

With the invitation to Labour, Israel is likely to see another round of complex coalition-rebuilding which could affect all players, large and small. One scenario floated yesterday involved a three-way partnership of Likud, Labour and the secular Shinui party.

Led by 72-year-old Holocaust survivor Yosef Lapid, the Shinui (Change) party has enraged Israel's ultra-Orthodox minority by agitating against state-sponsored religious constraints such as the country's ban on civil marriage ceremonies. But with 15 seats in the Knesset, Lapid's party could prove a kingmaker in a centrist coalition.

Sharon has targeted September, 2005, as moving day for Gaza's 20 Jewish enclaves, in which 7,500 Israeli settlers live under armed protection from the territory's estimated 1.3 million Palestinians. The deadline is also the target date for the uprooting of four isolated Jewish colonies in the larger Palestinian West Bank, home to the vast majority of Israel's settlement movement.

Sharon's harshest left-wing critics call the plan an act of disguised expansion, in which the comparatively small sacrifices of Gaza will be used to justify de facto annexation of the city-sized Jewish enclaves in the West Bank that are expected to fall on the Israeli side of the controversial separation barrier now under construction.

But moderates in Labour view any move toward dismantling settlements as a move worthy of their support. Peres, a three-time former prime minister, has had the withdrawal of Gaza on his agenda for the better part of 20 years. But the famed Nobel peace laureate also favours the restoration of negotiations with Palestinians, a position the hawks of Likud loathe as a return to the familiar terrain of failure embodied by the Oslo peace process.

Peres yesterday signalled he intends to demand a firm timetable for disengagement before agreeing to Labour's entry into government. But with only 19 seats in the 120-seat Israeli Knesset, or parliament, it remains unclear whether Labour is in a position to make demands.

"They'll make a big show of it, Peres and Sharon, but it's a bit of a false drama. Peres is running into an open door, as we say in Hebrew. They both want this to happen," said Bar Ilan University's Steinberg.

"The real drama will be over who gets the cabinet posts. Peres will want the foreign ministry. But what will (Finance Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu do? The next generation of Israeli leaders will stake their futures on how they position themselves."

Sharon's battle with Israel's far right, which remains ideologically opposed to any moves toward uprooting settlements, is far from won.

"I think the probability is the right-wing is weakened by this process. But they have a lot of fight left in them," said Yaron Ezrahi, a Hebrew University scholar and senior fellow with the Israeli Democracy Institute.

"On one hand, you have Sharon, Peres, the Israeli mainstream, on the same practical side. But the other side the relatively tiny extreme-right is extremely organized, politically. It won't be an even fight, but it will be a big fight anyway."

Ezrahi pointed to the recent International Court of Justice ruling against Israel's separation barrier as another vital piece of the new political puzzle.

While most analysts expect Israel ultimately will be protected from any future moves toward United Nations sanctions by the United States and its Security Council veto, Ezrahi said the price of veto could be high.

"The International Court gave the United States a valuable present with this ruling," said Ezrahi.

"America can now say to Israel, if you want the veto, you had better shape up and restore the fence toward the Green Line (demarking Israel's pre-1967 borders). If you want the veto, you had better push forward with your plans to leave Gaza."

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