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Sharon, Peres in Israeli Coalition Talks - 2004-07-18

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has stepped up efforts to expand his coalition, in order to secure support for his disengagement plan from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. He met with opposition Labor Party leader Shimon Peres before formal coalition talks on forging a national unity government.

Mr. Sharon met Mr. Peres for the second time in a week to discuss Labor joining the government in a bid to win parliamentary approval for Mr. Sharon's disengagement plan.

While Mr. Sharon's Cabinet voted in favor of the plan earlier this year, dissenters resigned in protest, and he lost his majority in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

Under the Sharon plan, Israel will dismantle all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank by the end of next year.

Mr. Peres, who supports the plan, has expressed interest in Labor joining the coalition, and asked the prime minister to speed up the timetable for disengagement.

Following their talks, Mr. Sharon told his Cabinet he had no choice but to talk about a new coalition with the Labor Party, while a dissident faction of his own Likud Party is actively trying to scuttle the disengagement plan.

The prime minister said, if the negotiations succeed, he will likely have to reorganize the current Cabinet, and some ministers will have to give up their portfolios to members of the Labor Party.

Observers believe that Mr. Sharon would almost certainly appoint Mr. Peres the new foreign minister.

Mr. Sharon told Mr. Peres he is also willing to make some changes to diplomatic and economic policies, in order to accommodate Labor, but he will not alter the government's basic guidelines.

Members of the Likud and the Labor parties are set to begin formal talks late Sunday on the formation of a national unity government.