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Labor to join unity government

JERUSALEM, Feb. 26 (JTA) – Shimon Peres may be unable to win an election with the Israeli public, but he can still carry the day in his own party.

Following weeks of infighting and recrimination that threatened to split the Labor Party, the party’s Central Committee voted Monday night to take Peres’ advice and join a unity government under Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon.

Peres is expected to serve as foreign minister under the Likud Party’s Sharon, who is as opposed to the Oslo peace agreements with the Palestinians as Peres is identified with them.

Sharon overwhelmingly defeated incumbent Ehud Barak in special elections for prime minister earlier this month. He then urged Labor to join his coalition to confront the five-month-old crisis with the Palestinians and, perhaps, to improve prospects for future peace contacts.

The Labor meeting was stormy. Senior party members made impassioned pleas from the podium, while police tussled outside the auditorium with young party activists – many opposed to the unity government – who were not committee members and were denied entry.

The committee also had been expected to choose Peres as interim party leader until new primaries can be held, but that motion was struck down on procedural grounds.

“The time has come to listen to the nation for once,” Peres said in a plea for unity, as supporters clapped and hecklers booed. “For once, listen to the will of the nation.”

Peres was the most eloquent Labor voice for joining a unity government, but many leading members of the party opposed the idea.

Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, Peres’ political protege and one of the main opponents of a unity government, said Labor’s only purpose would be to extend the life of an ill-fated coalition under Sharon.

“Shimon, I love you, but listening to your remarks, I want to cry,” Beilin said to Peres. He said it would be Sharon’s wildest dream to have a “Nobel Peace Prize laureate as his foreign minister,” to explain his government’s allegedly hard-line policies abroad.

Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami warned that Labor needs a season in the political wilderness to rebuild itself, and would destroy itself by joining a unity government now.

“In the opposition we can be a united party,” Ben-Ami said. “Joining a hardline unity government will erase our identity as a movement.”

Labor’s bitter debate was intensified by the succession battle underway following Barak’s resignation as party leader.

Labor and Likud reportedly have agreed that Labor will receive eight portfolios in the government. The sides also drew up general policy positions that smoothed over their ideological differences.

Sharon has said that peace will require painful concessions. But he has reiterated that he will not negotiate with the Palestinians as long as attacks on Israelis continue.

Senior Labor Party members last week removed their opposition to sitting in the same government with far- right legislators Rehavam Ze’evi and Avigdor Lieberman, a development that outraged dovish members of the party.

Meanwhile, heavy exchanges of fire were reported Monday in the Gaza Strip, despite late-night talks Sunday between senior Israeli and Palestinian security officials on ways to stop the violence.

An Israeli soldier was lightly wounded when Palestinians threw an explosive device at Israeli troops along the Israel-Egypt border.

Israeli security forces also arrested two Palestinians in the Bethlehem area suspected of attacking drivers on a main highway linking Jerusalem and the West Bank. The army also set up a new military post near the Ramallah- Nablus road after two Jewish settlers were wounded in shooting attacks in the area Sunday.

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