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Sharon Invites Labor Party to Join Israeli Government

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has invited the Labor Party to join the government a day after winning approval to do so from his Likud party's Central Committee. The Israeli leader also plans to invite two conservative religious parties to join him in a coalition.

Prime Minister Sharon called Labor Party leader Shimon Peres early Friday to invite him to begin negotiations on forming a new government.

Late Thursday the Central Committee of Mr. Sharon's Likud Party approved his request to invite Labor into the government. Some 62 percent of those casting ballots voted approval of the request. Although it was a non-binding measure the result from the 3,000 member Central Committee gives Mr. Sharon the tacit approval to go ahead with his plans and, perhaps more importantly, lets him avoid having to call new elections nearly two years ahead of schedule.

The prime minister fired his main coalition partner, the Shinui Party, last week for voting against his 2005 budget leaving him with a slim 40 seats in the 120 seat parliament. With Labor's 22 seats he would have a majority. But Mr. Sharon is expected to try to widen that majority by bringing in two religious parties - United Torah Judaism and Shas. Talks with all three parties are expected to begin on Sunday. Mr. Sharon could present a new government for parliamentary approval within the next few weeks.

Labor has promised to support the Sharon plan to remove all 21 Jewish settlements from Gaza and four of the 120 in the West Bank. But they are not comfortable with some elements of his budget, especially cuts in social programs.

Nevertheless, an agreement between Likud, Labor and United

Torah Judaism is expected to be worked out quickly. But getting an agreement with Shas could be more complicated because of its demand for a major overhaul of the government's economic policies.