The leader of Israel's Labor Party has rejected an invitation from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to join him in a new coalition government. The political rivals met earlier to discuss the issue.
Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna was reported to have declined Mr. Sharon's offer, saying that his party's decision was taken out of a sense of "national responsibility."
Prime Minister Sharon apparently told Mr. Mitzna that, at this time of crisis, Israel needs a broad-based government that includes the country's two strongest parties.
The political rivals have opposing views, especially on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Mr. Sharon advocates continued, tough military action against a more than two-year old Palestinian uprising. He has also ruled out resuming peace talks unless certain conditions are met, including an end to violence, and the removal of Yasser Arafat as Palestinian leader.
Mr. Mitzna has sharply criticized Mr. Sharon's policies toward the Palestinians and favors an immediate resumption of peace negotiations. The Labor Party leader also favors Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, even if peace talks go nowhere. He favors dismantling Jewish settlements in the territories and he accepts the idea of establishing a Palestinian state.
Mr. Sharon's Likud Party won a resounding victory in elections last week, securing 38 seats in Parliament. But the party is far short of the 61-seat majority it needs to govern alone, so Mr. Sharon has been meeting with other parties in a search for coalition partners.
Mr. Sharon has made it clear he would like Labor in the government. The Labor Party secured only 19 parliament seats in the election. It was the worst showing in Labor's history.
But in his concession speech on election night, Mr. Mitzna said he would not join a coalition with Likud and vowed that Labor would be the opposition.
Not everyone in Mr. Mitzna's party agrees with that position. Some members, such as Shimon Peres, think Labor should consider joining a unity government. Mr. Peres served as foreign minister under Mr. Sharon's previous coalition government.
Other Labor Party members believe that was a mistake and they blame Labor's participation in the Sharon government for the party's disastrous defeat at the polls.
Israeli President Moshe Katsav must formally ask Mr. Sharon to form a new government, and he is expected to do that this week.