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Likud Will Likely Stay in Opposition, As Shas Predicted to Join Coalition

Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak appears to be moving toward forming a moderate-left government.

Though Barak had initially said he hoped to form a government that also includes the Likud Party, this became unlikely Monday, when coalition talks with Likud broke down.

At the same time, there were signs that the fervently Orthodox Shas Party would be joining the new government.

A meeting between Barak and acting Likud Chairman Ariel Sharon lasted only several minutes.

“I don’t see a way for the Likud to join the government,” Sharon told reporters Monday. “We will fight this government from the opposition.”

The Likud had sought an equal voice in deciding policy, particularly on the political process.

“A full partnership was necessary — that kind of partnership was not proposed to us,” Sharon added.

Sharon, the outgoing foreign minister, cited differences with Barak regarding the future of the Golan Heights, which Syria demands in exchange for peace with Israel, and Jewish housing construction in predominantly Arab eastern Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, progress in talks with the Shas Party appeared to clear the way for its entry into the coalition.

Negotiating teams began discussing a coalition package for Shas after the fervently Orthodox party met Barak’s key demands to oust its corruption-tainted leader, Aryeh Deri, and forgo its demand for control of the interior ministry.

According to reports, Shas would be offered the Labor, Health and Infrastructure ministries, as well as some control of the Religious Affairs ministry, possibly involving a rotation arrangement with the National Religious Party.

“In the opinion of the prime minister-elect, Shas joining the coalition is necessary and workable,” said Meretz party leader Yossi Sarid.

Meretz, a champion of secular rights, had initially said it would refuse to sit on a government with Shas, citing the bribery and fraud conviction of its former leader, Aryeh Deri.

Meretz officials, who have already concluded a coalition agreement with Barak, met Monday night to decide whether to remain in the government if Shas joins.

In addition to Meretz, Barak signed coalition agreements over the weekend with the immigrants rights Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party and the National Religious Party, a champion of Jewish settler interests.

Along with Barak’s own One Israel list, the emerging coalition so far numbers 47 seats, still short of a 61-majority in the 120-member Knesset.

Barak is also expected to try to conclude agreements with the Center Party, the One Nation workers party and the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism bloc.

If all three join, Barak would have 60 of the 120 legislators behind him. If Shas joins, as expected, the government would hold a comfortable 77-seat majority in the Knesset.

With the signing of coalition agreements, a number of government portfolios were parceled out over the weekend:

Housing Ministry — National Religious Party. This will help the NRP advance its interests in developing Jewish settlements, but could prove to be a source of tension with dovish parties within the coalition. It may also present difficulties in peace negotiations with the Palestinians, who have demanded an end to Jewish settlement activity.

Education — Meretz. This portfolio was held in the outgoing government by the National Religious Party.

Trade and Industry — Meretz.

Interior Affairs — Yisrael Ba’Aliyah. The Russian immigrants party built its campaign around the demand to wrest control of the ministry from Shas, which Yisrael Ba’Aliyah charged was blocking the entry of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Immigrant Absorption — Yisrael Ba’Aliyah will continue to control this ministry.

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