Sharon bid for coalition fails
TEL AVIV, Israel (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party has rejected his request to form a new ruling coalition with the rival Labor Party to back his plan to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza and most of the West Bank.
Sharon had asked for party leaders' support to negotiate with "any Zionist party" to form a new coalition government to "make the difficult decisions" Israel needs to make.
The request failed narrowly in Likud's central committee late Wednesday, and party leaders approved a resolution opposing it by a significantly wider margin.
But the votes are non-binding, and Sharon is expected to continue seeking a broader coalition among Israeli lawmakers in order to pursue his "disengagement" plan, which Likud's rank-and-file rejected in a May referendum.
Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza since 1967. Sharon argues a unilateral withdrawal is needed because Israel has been unable to find a Palestinian partner to negotiate a peace agreement.
Under his proposal, Israel would pull all troops out of Gaza and abandon all settlements in the territory, but it would keep six large settlement blocs in the West Bank.
The prime minister told Wednesday's party conference that his government is likely to collapse without talks with Labor, which supports the disengagement plan. He called on Likud members to demonstrate they can be "relied upon when it comes to making fateful decisions for the state of Israel."
Sharon said he needs a new coalition because his current government has been unable to win the support of every Likud lawmaker for the planned withdrawal.
"There is a group whose way involves acting against the government, making vicious attacks on the government and myself personally," he said.
Sharon also has talked with conservative religious parties, and told Likud leaders Wednesday that he hoped to include Orthodox Jewish parties that oppose removing Israeli settlements from Gaza in coalition talks.
About 7,500 Israeli settlers live in Gaza and about 230,000 live in the West Bank.
Palestinians have criticized the planned withdrawal, calling it an attempt to circumvent negotiations called for in the U.S.-backed "road map" to Middle East peace.