Looking Toward Disengagement, Sharon and Peres Are Talking Unity

With an eye toward withdrawing Israel from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres, lifelong friends and career rivals, are back at their old game of government building. Negotiators for Prime Minister Sharon and opposition leader Peres met Sunday for what looked to be a very short round of talks on forging a unity coalition after their respective parties approved the union last week.

Peres’ Labor Party did not even make specific demands for Cabinet posts in throwing a political lifeline to Sharon, who recently lost his parliamentary majority.

“Let’s be clear on this: There will be a government,” Labor’s Haim Ramon told Army Radio. “The question is whether we join this government with significant Cabinet portfolios, or without.”

Under Peres, Labor has set a high premium on helping Sharon push through his plan to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank next year.

While media reports suggest Peres could be rewarded with a tailor-made post in the next Sharon government — “disengagement minister” — the Labor leader has made no mention of any such payback.

“We expect to see a deal within days,” he told reporters on Saturday.

But Sharon also needs help passing the battered 2005 budget, which his previous coalition partner, the secular Shinui Party, blocked in the Knesset on Dec. 1 in protest at funding earmarked for religious causes.

Sharon fired Shinui and now is courting the Orthodox Shas Party as a possible third member of a Likud- and Labor-led government.

In parallel, Israel has been tacitly encouraging the campaign to find a successor to Yasser Arafat in Palestinian elections slated for Jan. 9.

On Sunday, the Cabinet approved in principle the release of as many as 200 Palestinian security prisoners, on condition they are not serving sentences for terrorist attacks that killed or seriously hurt Israelis.

Jerusalem officials described the measure as part of a reciprocal arrangement with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, after he granted accused Israeli spy Azzam Azzam an early release from prison last week.

But they also acknowledged that the releases could boost the prestige of Palestinian presidential frontrunner Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“It never hurts for the Palestinian moderates to be perceived as making gains from Israel. But as far as we are concerned, the real test is in whether they can stop the terrorism,” one Jerusalem official said.

Yet a resurgence of violence made that appear most unlikely. Hamas terrorists detonated a tunnel packed with hundreds of pounds of explosives right under an Israeli army post in the southern Gaza Strip on Sunday. Military sources reported at least 10 casualties in the attack near Rafah, on the border with Egypt.

There also has been bloodshed in central Gaza. After mortar crews in the central Palestinian town of Khan Younis shelled a nearby Jewish settlement on Friday wounding four Israelis, a retaliatory sweep was launched. Palestinians said a Khan Younis girl was killed by Israeli gunfire.

Abbas condemned the Israeli moves, but looked almost certain to receive help on the domestic front after his main rival for the Palestinian presidency, jailed West Bank militia leader Marwan Barghouti, said through confidants he would withdraw from the election race.

Significantly, Abbas agreed Sunday to Barghouti’s demand that he include “armed resistance” on his platform as the main Palestinian faction Fatah’s candidate.

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