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Israeli Leaders Meet to Discuss National Unity Government - 2004-07-12

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has formally opened talks with the opposition Labor Party leader, Shimon Peres, on forming a national unity government. Mr. Sharon wants Labor to join his shaky coalition in order to ensure the parliament approves his plan to withdraw from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

Mr. Sharon invited Labor to join the government during a meeting with Mr. Peres at the Prime Minister's official residence in Jerusalem.

The prime minister is seeking an alliance with Labor to boost his chances of implementing his plan to dismantle all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank by the end of 2005.

Earlier this year, the prime minister received the approval of his Cabinet for the plan but some ministers from right-wing factions resigned in protest. As a result, Mr. Sharon lost his majority in the parliament.

Some members of Mr. Sharon's Likud Party are also openly opposed to the withdrawal plan and say they will do everything possible to ensure it is not implemented.

Labor's Mr. Peres said he is interested in joining the government, but not unconditionally. He says that Labor wants the government to speed up the withdrawal from Gaza and expand the pull-out from the West Bank.

Not everyone in the Labor Party is in favor of forming a government of national unity. Labor lawmaker Yuli Tamir says the party should vote for Mr. Sharon's withdrawal plan in the parliament, but rejects the idea of joining forces with the Likud.

"There are many ways for us to support disengagement without entering the government," he said. "We have offered and we should sustain a very large [parliamentary] safety net on those issues."

There are also members within Mr. Sharon's Likud Party opposed to Labor joining the government, including Cabinet ministers who will have to give up key portfolios.

Mr. Peres is widely expected to become the foreign minister in a grand coalition government.