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Netanyahu okays discussions on forming unity government

JERUSALEM, Dec. 2 (JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given his blessing to discussions between Labor and Likud officials aimed at the possibility of forming a national unity government. These discussions included a meeting Monday between Foreign Minister David Levy and Labor’s former Interior Minister Haim Ramon. There was also a lengthy meeting Sunday night between Labor leader Shimon Peres and the minister of infrastructure, Ariel Sharon. Rumors about the formation of a national unity government have surfaced more than once since Netanyahu won the May elections. But Israeli news reports this week suggested that Netanyahu was giving his support to the discussions at a time when the Arab world appears to be closing ranks against the policies of his Likud-led government. Israel’s stalemated negotiations with the Palestinians for implementing a redeployment in most of Hebron have drawn repeated protests from the Arab world. Nor are the tensions expected to subside when Israeli and Palestinian negotiators tackle the next phase in the peace process, the final status negotiations. Within the domestic political arena, more talks regarding a unity government were expected later this week between teams of Knesset members from Labor and Likud. Such discussions have taken place sporadically in an effort to seek common ground on the issues due to arise in the final status negotiations. Labor Knesset member Yossi Beilin, a key foreign policy strategist in the previous Labor government, said Monday the areas of agreement in the talks with Likud officials were “surprisingly” broad. On the Likud side, Tourism Minister Moshe Katzav said Monday he would support a unity government, provided the two parties could reach accord on the Golan Heights, which Syria wants returned as part of any peace agreement with the Jewish state. Katzav said he could easily see agreement with Labor officials on the future of the West Bank, which along with the status of Jerusalem is a key issue to be taken up in the final status talks. The latest activity surrounding a unity government was triggered by the Labor Party Central Committee’s decision last week to hold leadership elections June 3. At the same time, the committee agreed to empower Shimon Peres to lead the party toward a unity government until September 1997. This decision touched off strong opposition within Labor itself, especially within the camp supporting former Foreign Minister Ehud Barak’s candidacy for the leadership. This camp sees the move as a machination on Peres’ part to stay at the party helm. But the decision aroused the pro-unity government forces within Likud — among them ministers who are thoroughly disenchanted with Netanyahu’s leadership. Finance Minister Dan Meridor said over the weekend that he would willingly give up his portfolio to make way for a Labor colleague in a unity government. The Orthodox parties in the governing coalition and Labor’s leftist ally, Meretz, have come out strongly against the unity initiative.

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