Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon is pressing on with his bid to persuade vanquished Israeli leader Ehud Barak and the Labor party to join a national unity government, but differences still remain over the coalitionâ€™s policy guidelines and the distribution of cabinet portfolios.
Likud and Labor negotiators are holding further talks on Monday toward forging a unity coalition, but it remains unclear if Sharon and the Likud would agree to key Labor demands over Palestinian independence and dismantling of settlements. Labor MKs said Sunday their party would not join a Sharon-led unity government if the coalition's guidelines did not agree to resume peace talks, accept the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state, halt settlement building, and provide for the evacuation of isolated settlements.
Likud officials have yet to respond to Laborâ€™s demands, explaining that Sharon does not intend to announce in advance the concessions he is willing to make in future negotiations with the Palestinians. Labor party elder Shimon Peres insisted, "The question is if [Sharon] is willing to write these things down in a coalition agreement." Peres claimed on Monday that the Likud had agreed to a number of Labor stipulations over the peace process, including the principle of Palestinian statehood.
Sharon has made statements in the past that suggest he has come to terms with the advent of a Palestinian state. But he was a major patron of the settlement movement and vowed during the recent campaign to leave all the Yesha communities in place.
The other main question that remains unanswered in the coalition talks is cabinet seating, and especially whether Barak will accept Sharonâ€™s offer to appoint him as defense minister. Some sources close to Barak say he will stick with his election-night decision to take a break from political life. However, others say he is under tremendous pressure to change his mind and accept the offer, which would entail yet one more trademark â€œzigzag.â€
Labor delegates said it was doubtful whether an agreement would be achieved Monday, while Likud negotiator Ehud Olmert, Mayor of Jerusalem, said chances for a unity deal were better than 50-50. On Tuesday, Likud is expected to give their answers to Labor on the peace policy guidelines, and Labor plans to hold a caucus on Thursday to reach a decision.
Meanwhile, the post-election Labor pains continue. MK Uzi Baram, a senior Labor member, announced his retirement from politics today. Baram has been a Knesset Member since 1977 and has served on the cabinet under Labor-led governments. He is the third Labor MK to announce his resignation since the crushing electoral defeat of last week, joining Barak and Eli Goldshmidt.
Given the apparent majority in the party for joining a unity government, at least one senior party figure apparently plans to quit Labor: Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, who may form a new left-wing party with Meretz and MK Roman Bronfman.
The race for Labor party leadership is likely to come down to a race between Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg and veteran MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, considered a hawkish Laborite who is on good terms with Sharon. If Barak turns down the defense posting, Ben-Eliezer is being touted as the next leading candidate for the job. Burg said Monday it would be "unseemly" if Barak were to accept Sharonâ€™s offer of defense minister.
The infighting in Labor was visible at the Tel Aviv hotel where the two sides were conducting coalition business. Barak had upset Peres by deciding at the last minute to chair the Labor delegation to the talks alone. Peres then drew fire from party colleagues for showing up at hotel prior to the talks, even though he is not a member of the negotiating team. Peres claimed his appearance was coincidental and that he merely came to the hotel to rest. In a final note on Peres, he says he would only be interested in joining a Sharon government as foreign minister and nothing else.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.