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Sharon Considers Coalition Talks with Labor Party - 2004-06-16


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is likely to begin talks with the opposition Labor Party about joining his coalition government. Meanwhile, Mr. Sharon has been cleared of charges in a bribery scandal.

Israeli media are reporting that Mr. Sharon is likely to open discussions with Labor Party leader Shimon Peres within the coming days.

Mr. Peres has hinted that his party would consider joining Mr. Sharon's coalition government if asked. Labor party member Haim Ramon was much more forceful than that.

"The minute that he (Sharon) will ask us to open negotiations with him, we will do it," he said.

Political commentator, Akiva Eldar, of the daily Ha'aretz newspaper says one factor has made the long-time right-wing prime minister the unlikely ally of the Israeli left, and that is his proposed withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

"The Labor Party can't wait to jump into his government. If you believe in a two-state solution you cannot reject any withdrawal from occupied territories," Mr. Eldar said.

And, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres has made it clear that if his party joins a Sharon coalition it will do so to enhance peace efforts with the Palestinians and to ensure a withdrawal from Gaza.

Not everyone in the Labor Party wants to join the government, and some feel the party would be better off pursuing early elections and making its own case for peace with the Palestinians to the Israeli public. Public opinion polls continue to show that the majority of Israelis favor disengagement from the Palestinians.

Negotiations with Labor are considered vital to the longer term survival of Mr. Sharon's government. His coalition is now a minority within the Israeli parliament after two ministers were dismissed and another resigned in opposition to the disengagement plan.

The Labor Party had said it would not consider joining the coalition unless Mr. Sharon was cleared of bribery charges. Late Tuesday, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz did just that - announcing that charges against the prime minister in the so-called Greek Island Affair are being dropped due to lack of evidence.

The scandal involved hundreds of thousands of dollars allegedly paid to one of Mr. Sharon's sons to help promote a tourist project on a Greek island.

An anti-corruption group has petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the decision by Mr. Mazuz, but law professor Ze'ev Segal of Tel Aviv University told Israel Radio that is unlikely.

"The chances that the High Court will intervene in the decision of the Attorney General are very small and it's very rare," he said. "But, still I would not put it out of any chances."

And so, analysts say it looks like Mr. Sharon has some political breathing room, at least for now.

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