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Likud, Labor Disagree on Need for Creating a Unity Government

With two weeks to go before Israeli elections, the leaders of the two main parties have found a new point of disagreement.

This week, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stressed the urgency of forming a unity government, while his Labor Party rival, Amram Mitzna, vowed not to join a Likud-led coalition.

The two set out their positions in public appearances Tuesday, each claiming that his approach was what Israel needs.

“A unity government is more important today than ever,” Sharon said at a dedication ceremony of a traffic interchange in Haifa. “Most of the Israeli people are watching us today, and expect unity.”

Mitzna, who attended the ceremony as Haifa mayor, left before Sharon spoke.

Sharon’s remarks reflected his efforts to appeal to centrist voters.

This effort also was evident in remarks he made in an interview published this week in The New York Times, in which he said he would exclude extremist parties from either end of the political spectrum if he forms a unity government after the Jan. 28 elections.

“I don’t doubt I will form the next government,” Sharon told Times columnist William Safire. “I won’t put myself in the hands of any radical parties, neither of the left or of the right. I can’t have those who want to give up everything or those who want to keep everything. I need the center because we have to take painful steps.”

In its campaign, the Labor Party has said a future Sharon government would be dominated by extreme right-wing and religious parties.

At a news conference, Mitzna gave voters an either-or choice, stating he would not serve in a coalition government led by Sharon.

“It’s us or him. Anyone who doesn’t vote Labor is voting for Sharon,” Mitzna said.

“Carefully consider your vote,” added Mitzna, who was joined by a lineup of senior party members.

Research by Labor has shown that Mitzna’s stance would win three or four more seats for the party, which would be taken from Meretz, Shinui and the Arab parties, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

Recent polls showed Labor winning 20 to 22 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

Opinion polls published Monday showed Sharon’s Likud Party gaining support. That reversed a decline suffered in recent weeks after corruption allegations surfaced involving party officials and Sharon’s family.

The polls published in Yediot Achronot and Ma’ariv showed Likud winning 32 to 33 seats in the Knesset, compared with 27 in last week’s forecast.

Political observers said the turnaround was due to traditional Likud supporters returning to the party as the Jan. 28 election date nears.

They also noted that recent Palestinian terrorism has refocused the election campaign away from the corruption allegations to security issues.

Though Labor leaders sought to present a united front when Mitzna made his announcement Tuesday, the declaration uncovered old fault lines in the party.

Meir Nitzan, mayor of Rishon le-Zion, thinks Labor should enter a unity government. He said Mitzna’s decision was taken without the authorization of any of the party’s governing bodies, and that he would do everything in his power to fight it.

“The decision was taken illegally. If the head of the party allows himself to act in violation of the law, then I am permitted to speak,” Nitzan told Israel Radio.

Only the outcome of the Jan. 28 vote will tell whether the red lines staked out this week will remain so, or whether they turn out to be lines of sand, blown away by the winds of pragmatism when coalition negotiations begin.

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