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In aftermath of election victory, Barak keeps mum about coalition

JERUSALEM, May 23 (JTA) — With Israel’s elections over, coalition talks are now set to begin. Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak plans to begin coalition negotiations this week by inviting representatives from all parties in the Knesset to describe their vision of what the goals and composition of the next government should be, the head of Barak’s negotiating team said Sunday. David Libai, justice minister in the former Labor government, said party representatives would be invited in order of their size in the incoming Knesset, starting with those parties that supported or were neutral on Barak’s bid for prime minister. He added that the initial discussions would not entail any negotiations, but would provide the parties with an opportunity to express their views. Barak, meanwhile, continued to keep his cards close to his vest regarding his coalition preferences, refusing to comment on the matter to reporters when he arrived for lunch Sunday with President Ezer Weizman. Media reports have speculated that Barak, who has promised to try to build a broad coalition, prefers to bring the rival right-wing Likud Party into the fold over the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, the third largest faction with 17 seats. Shas held 10 seats in the outgoing Knesset. Shas boosted its parliamentary representation dramatically in a campaign that assailed the judicial system for what it claimed was an ethnically motivated conviction of its leader, Moroccan-born Aryeh Deri, on bribery and fraud charges. Deri, who is currently appealing the conviction and four-year jail sentence, last week resigned from the Knesset in what was widely viewed as an attempt to clear the way for coalition negotiations between Shas and Barak. But Deri’s subsequent declaration to Shas supporters that he remained the spiritual and social leader of the movement prompted Barak last week to say he would not negotiate with Shas if Deri continues to pull political strings “by remote control.” A further snag has been the declaration by at least two other potential coalition partners — the Meretz and Shinui parties — that they would not be part of a government that includes Shas. In the Likud, meanwhile, members disagreed on whether to consider joining a coalition headed by Barak. Outgoing Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, who reportedly may be offered the same position in the new government, told a party meeting Sunday that Likud should remain open to the option, but not at any price. “If we’re invited [to join the coalition] it will be based on our ability to go in a way that is similar or close to our way,” Sharon said. “But under no conditions should we run to them.” In contrast, Likud Knesset member Reuven Rivlin said the party should remain in the opposition and focus on the party’s rehabilitation after it tumbled from 32 to 19 Knesset seats as a result of last week’s elections. Absent from Sunday’s meeting was outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who resigned as party leader after last week’s electoral defeat. He may also relinquish his Knesset seat in the coming days, Israeli media reports say. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz, citing a senior official in Barak’s One Israel bloc, said the newly elected premier is under heavy pressure not to name Sharon as his foreign minister. The source said it is unlikely the job will go to the hawkish Sharon because such a move could make it difficult for Barak to fulfill his pledge to strengthen ties with the United States and other countries, which were strained under the Netanyahu government. Likewise, the source speculated that Barak was also likely to pass over dovish members of his own party, such as Knesset member Yossi Beilin, and opt for a moderate candidate.