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Sharon Attempts to Bring Labor Party Into Government - 2003-02-21

Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, is intensifying efforts to bring the Labor Party into a government of national unity. Mr. Sharon met Friday with Labor Party chairman Amram Mitzna, and the two leaders are scheduled to hold a second round of talks late Saturday.

Mr. Sharon emerged from several hours of talks with Mr. Mitzna with hopes that the Labor Party will drop its opposition to joining forces with the ruling Likud faction in a new government.

Following the meeting in Tel Aviv on Friday, Mr. Sharon's office issued a statement saying the talks dealt frankly with the issues that divide them and were held in a good atmosphere.

Although the discussions were inconclusive, the two agreed to meet again Saturday night, following the end of the Jewish Sabbath.

Before the elections, Mr. Mitzna pledged that the Labor Party would never join a coalition led by Mr. Sharon.

Some Labor members, such as Yuli Tamir, say the faction should stick to this position, unless Mr. Sharon agrees to a shift on key policy issues, including a demand to dismantle Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "Until Sharon will prove that he is not only talking about changing its policy, but actually doing it - implementing new policies, stopping his support for the settlements, removing settlements - until he does that, there is no chance that Labor Party will enter into negotiations for joining a national unity government," she said.

Labor served under Mr. Sharon in his previous administration, but quit the coalition last year in a dispute over funding for Jewish settlements.

On January 28, Mr. Sharon's Likud Party swept to power in national elections, winning 38 seats in the 120-seat parliament. Labor was crushed in the poll, picking up only 19 seats.

Some in the Labor Party believe the faction should remain in opposition and attempt to rebuild its support in the Israeli electorate.

Others, such as Labor stalwart Shimon Peres, a former prime minister, say the party should keep open the possibility of serving again under Mr. Sharon and influencing the direction of the government.

Mr. Peres has told colleagues that it is policies and not personalities that should decide the issue.