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Labor to join talks on forming new Israeli coalition

Peres and Sharon
Labor Party chief Shimon Peres, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon attending a ceremony last week in Jerusalem.
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Shimon Peres

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli Labor Party chief Shimon Peres said Monday that his party will enter talks to form a national unity government with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, an alliance that would carry out Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

Sharon, leader of Israel's conservative Likud party, warned rebel parliament members they must support his government or he will consider calling early elections.

The delicate position of Sharon's government was illustrated Monday afternoon when it survived three no-confidence votes, one of them a 55-55 tie.

To bring down the government, the opposition needs 61 votes in the 120-member parliament, or Knesset

Sharon met with Peres on Monday morning to discuss the issue. A short time later, at a party faction meeting, Peres said Labor would not join the existing government but would name a team to begin negotiations on forming a national unity government that would move forward under new assumptions.

The Labor Party has scheduled a meeting for Tuesday, when it is expected formally to accept Sharon's offer to begin negotiations.

An expanded coalition with Peres' Labor Party would ease pressure on Sharon, who has faced fierce opposition from hawkish Israeli parties and Likud about the plan to withdraw from Gaza and four isolated settlements in the West Bank.

Members of the far-right National Union party withdrew from Likud in protest after Sharon's plan was unveiled. In addition, members of the National Religious Party have failed to show up for votes in the Knesset.

Sharon told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz that dodging votes "cannot continue." The paper quoted him as saying, "If it does continue, this places me in a position where I must form a new coalition."

Sharon said he could either "broaden the coalition, not because I want to but for lack of an alternative, or ... I will have to go to [early] elections."

Some Labor Party members also oppose joining with Sharon, fearing their left-leaning party would become a fig leaf for the Israeli leader's military tactics.

Israeli government officials said Monday's meeting between Sharon and Peres was conducted in a "pleasant atmosphere."

Sharon: Barrier to continue

On Sunday, Sharon ordered that construction continue on a barrier between Israel and the West Bank despite last week's nonbinding world court ruling that it was "contrary to international law."

Sharon also ordered "that the struggle against the opinion of the [International Court of Justice] be continued by all diplomatic and legal means."

Addressing the issue Friday, the court said the barrier infringes on the rights of Palestinians and urged the Israelis remove it.

The court also said Israel is obligated to return confiscated land or make reparations for the destruction or damage to homes, businesses and farms affected by the barrier's construction.

Israel says the barrier serves to keep out terrorists, while Palestinians say it is an illegal land grab creating needless hardship for their people.

The Palestinians also say the plan violates the "road map" to peace, the series of confidence-building measures and negotiations designed to lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state existing side by side with Israel.

About one-third of the planned 425-mile barrier has been built since 2002. In some areas, the barrier is a fence; in others, it is a concrete wall. (Interactive: West Bank barrier)

Sharon's order followed a bombing Sunday in Tel Aviv that killed an Israeli soldier and injured 20 others. (Full story)

"What the [International Court of Justice] judges refused to see, the Palestinians quickly showed them this morning -- murder and the wounding of innocent civilians," Sharon said in a statement after the attack.

"It is not for nothing that the Palestinians are struggling against the fence. They know full well that the completion of the fence will make it very difficult for them to continue perpetrating acts of murder."

Sharon said the world court's opinion "sends a deadly message that encourages terror on the one hand and prevents countries from protecting themselves against it on the other."

The U.N. General Assembly sought the advisory opinion on the barrier after Arab states proposed a resolution banning the structure.

Under U.N. rules, the General Assembly can recommend sanctions, but only the Security Council can impose them.

The international court, created in 1945, is the main legal body of the United Nations and is usually called upon to settle disputes between states.

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