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Sharon Brings Nrp into Coalition; Labor Says Won’t Rejoin Government

February 24, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is starting to build his new coalition — one that will apparently not include the Labor Party.

Israel’s Labor Party said it was halting all talks about joining a unity government after Sharon’s Likud Party signed a coalition agreement this week with the pro- settler National Religious Party.

As a result of Sunday’s agreement, the NRP will be given the Housing Ministry, which among other things oversees settlement construction.

Another deal was expected to be finalized with the secular-rights Shinui Party, giving the future coalition at least a 61-seat majority in the 120-member Knesset.

Meanwhile, Labor leader Amram Mitzna accused Sharon on Sunday of working behind Labor’s back to reach an agreement with the NRP and an impending one with Shinui. “I was ready for a historic move, but Sharon was not prepared to pay the price,” Mitzna told the Jerusalem Post.

In a reference to the NRP’s advocacy of settlement building and opposition to a Palestinian state, Mitzna said Labor could not enter into a government whose policy guidelines would not enable any progress toward peace with the Palestinians.

Shinui leader Yosef “Tommy” Lapid expressed regret over Mitzna’s decision.

Lapid, who had lobbied Mitzna to enter into a unity government that would exclude all religious parties, described the NRP as a “moderate religious party.”

The Likud-NRP agreement following a series of unproductive talks between Sharon and Mitzna about Labor’s rejoining a Likud-led unity government.

Sharon had hoped to bring Labor into the government in order to help strike a centrist balance — especially because Israel is likely to come under U.S. pressure to advance the Palestinian track after any war in Iraq.

Labor’s withdrawal from the previous government — the move that triggered Israel’s Jan. 28 elections — was propelled in part by its opposition to settlement spending in the budget, as well as power struggles within the party.

In the elections, Labor lost six Knesset seats, giving it 19 seats in the new Knesset. Many political observers attributed Labor’s poor showing to its tacit support for Sharon’s policies for dealing with the Palestinians while Labor, under the leadership of Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, was part of the Sharon government.

Both before and following the elections, Mitzna sought to shore up Labor’s traditional base of support by stating he would not rejoin a Sharon-led government.

Just the same, under heavy pressure from within his party, Mitzna agreed to engage in talks about rejoining the government.

He said he wanted to clarify whether there was any substance to indications from the Prime Minister’s Office that it was willing to make compromises for peace with the Palestinians.

But while Sharon has publicly stated his willingness to make “painful concessions for peace” and voiced backing for a Palestinian state, Labor officials said Sunday that the prime minister had refused to put down in writing a commitment to a “continuation of the peace process, establishment of a Palestinian state and evacuation of settlements within the framework of a permanent peace deal.”

Sharon reportedly told Mitzna during a phone conversation Sunday that Labor and Likud were in a position where they could “make history together” and that “it would be a shame to miss” the opportunity.

The agreement reached between the Likud and NRP includes a guarantee that before any negotiation on a political agreement, including the establishment of a Palestinian state, the matter would be brought before the Cabinet for a decision.

In addition, the NRP would be granted the ability to oppose, and even take steps to lobby against, the establishment of a Palestinian state.

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