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Likud expects to be in coalition, officials say after initial discussions

JERUSALEM, May 26 (JTA) — Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak is intent on bringing the Likud Party into his coalition, according to Likud officials. Emerging confident from discussions Tuesday at Barak’s temporary headquarters in a Herzliya hotel, Likud officials said the head of Barak’s coalition negotiating team, David Libai, had said as much in their talks. “They want us very much,” said outgoing Communications Minister Limor Livnat. “They said so loud and clear.” Outgoing Tourism Minister Moshe Katzav, who also participated in Tuesday’s talks, said Libai “explicitly stated” that Barak felt it important for the Likud to be part of the next government. The Likud delegation, which arrived at the talks from a stormy caucus meeting in which members disagreed over whether it was possible to join a government under Barak, admitted to being slightly taken aback by the overtures. “I have to say that to a certain extent I was pleasantly surprised by an approach which was one of partnership, and not of another faction to which policies are dictated,” Livnat said. Barak’s apparent courtship of Likud contrasted to his negotiating team’s talks Tuesday with the fervently Orthodox Shas Party. Barak’s negotiating team said that if Shas wants to join the next government, leader Aryeh Deri should sever all connections to the party and that Shas give up control of the powerful Interior Ministry. But Shas negotiators said after the meeting that they would rather sit in the opposition than meet those demands. “Whoever wants us will get us as we are,” said outgoing Interior Minister Eli Suissa. “We won’t be performing any cosmetic surgery in order to get into a coalition.” Outgoing Labor Minister Eliyahu Yishai told reporters that Deri, who resigned from the Knesset last week, continues as head of Shas. Barak has been flooded with appeals from supporters to exclude Shas. In last week’s elections, Shas boosted its Knesset representation from 10 to 17 seats in a campaign that largely assailed the Israeli legal system for what it said was an ethnically motivated conviction of Deri in March on bribery and fraud charges. With Shas’ moderate views on the peace process, however, some Labor Party members view it as a preferable coalition partner to the more hawkish Likud. Barak’s negotiating team has been holding meetings this week with all of the parties that will be participating in the incoming Knesset. After talks Wednesday, representatives of the National Religious Party, echoing statements from Likud a day earlier, said their party is being courted as a possible coalition partner. Another round of tougher negotiations with the various parties is expected to begin next week.