TEL AVIV, Dec. 9 (JTA) — If Prime Minister Ariel Sharon needed confirmation that most Israelis back his disengagement plan, he got it from his own Likud Party. Reversing earlier party opposition, the Likud Central Committee voted Thursday to allow Sharon to enter coalition talks with the opposition Labor Party in a bid to avert elections that would derail slated withdrawals from the Gaza Strip and West Bank. “Now we can get back to running the country,” said Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, one of Sharon’s main backers in the Likud. Labor Party Chairman Shimon Peres has made clear that he’s interested in joining the government and bolstering Sharon against right-wing groups opposed to ceding land to the Palestinians. “I have one true, core objective, and that is to put the peace process, the matter of the disengagement, into action,” Peres told Israel’s Channel Two television. “Everything else is trivial, to my mind.” Sharon fired his main coalition partner, Shinui, last month after the secularist party blocked the 2005 budget in the Knesset, angered at funds earmarked for Orthodox factions. That stripped Sharon of his parliamentary majority and raised the specter of early elections — never a good thing for incumbents at a time of major diplomatic breakthroughs. Sharon’s backers in Likud prevailed over the rebels by 62 percent to 38 percent, a ratio roughly reflecting mainstream Israeli support for his vision of “disengaging” from the Palestinians after more than four years of fighting. Right wingers opposed to giving up Gaza’s 21 Jewish settlements, and another four in the West Bank, campaigned throughout the day at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds, where balloting was held. Some of Sharon’s toughest critics remained unswayed by the vote. “I feel along with those rebels gathered here today, but the Central Committee faced a different question to whether there should be disengagement,” said Gila Gamliel, a hawkish Likud lawmaker. “The real question was, will the government stay in power or not?” Sharon’s policies have been buoyed by a general optimism over the prospect of a breakthrough after a successor is chosen to the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in Jan. 9 elections in the West Bank and Gaza. The next domestic hurdle Sharon faces is cobbling together the coalition, as Peres and other senior Laborites are bound to demand choice Cabinet posts currently occupied by Likud loyalists. Then again, Labor has come out against public sector cuts in Sharon’s $60 billion austerity budget. That means Sharon may court two fervently Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, for the coalition, banking on their support in fiscal issues even though they officially oppose withdrawals from biblical land.
Sharon victorious in Likud vote