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Barak issues policy statement as coalition discussions begin

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JERUSALEM, May 24 (JTA) — With Israel’s elections over, coalition talks are now beginning. On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak presented potential coalition partners with a 10-point plan outlining his policy goals. The plan, which is a summary of a 39-page document that more fully spells out his goals, includes the following points: * Security and an unrelenting fight against terrorism will be top priorities; * Jerusalem will remain united under Israeli sovereignty; * Israel will not withdraw from all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip; and * A majority of Jewish settlers will live in settlement blocs under Israeli sovereignty — a statement that implies smaller settlements will be dismantled. The remaining points deal with such domestic issues as education and embarking on a war on poverty. The plan makes no mention of resuming negotiations with Syria and Lebanon. Barak’s negotiating team began discussions Monday with four leftist and moderate parties: Meretz, Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, the Center Party and Shinui. After the talks, the head of Barak’s negotiating team, David Libai, said there was enough common ground that initial talks with the four parties could be concluded before the end of the week. The four parties were ready to be flexible in order to allow more hawkish groups such as the Likud and the National Religious Party to be able to join the coalition, said Libai, who served as justice minister in the former Labor government. Meetings with the Arab parties, followed by the right-wing parties, are expected to come later this week — in keeping with Barak’s decision to hold talks first with those parties that supported or were neutral about his candidacy. Political observers said the preliminary, informal round of coalition talks would end by Wednesday, with tougher discussions to begin next week.
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 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, the 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.” Absent from Sunday’s meeting was outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who resigned as party leader after last week’s electoral defeat. Netanyahu plans to resign from the Knesset this week, his aides said Monday. Netanyahu has numerous offers to make lecture appearances and he has a standing offer to write a book about his tenure in office, they added. They denied reports that Netanyahu is weighing offers from wealthy American Jewish backers, including cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder. Netanyahu has made no public appearances since he conceded defeat in last week’s election and resigned as head of the Likud Party. Meanwhile, 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.

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