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Israel's Labor chief: Party willing to join Sharon

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is working to maintain his coalition government.
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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- The head of Israel's opposition Labor Party signaled Thursday that his party is willing to join a unity government with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon because it backs his plan to pull out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

"I imagine there will be an approach to Labor during next week to join in a new national unity government," Labor Party chief Shimon Peres told reporters. "Labor is for a national union government because we think that the year of 2005 shouldn't be spent on internal skirmishes of the parties or elections in the nation.

"I think the year must be devoted not for politics but for policies, mainly to implement the disengagement, the withdrawal from Gaza, and the dismantling of the settlements in Gaza and in the northern part of Samaria [the northern West Bank]."

On Wednesday, Sharon's coalition government was left with control of only 40 seats in the 120-member Israeli parliament, the Knesset, when the prime minister fired ministers from the Shinui party in retaliation for their votes against his budget.

If Labor joins Sharon's Likud-led government, the new coalition would control 62 seats in the the Knesset.

Sharon told a gathering of newspaper editors Thursday that he will try to form a new government that includes Labor and some ultra-Orthodox religious parties.

"There is no choice but to start formally to try to widen the coalition with the Labor and the ultra-Orthodox," Sharon said in broadcast remarks.

"I intend to bring this step as soon as possible for approval to the Likud Central Committee to enable the establishment of a unity government," Sharon said.

"There are two clear choices: unity government or elections," he said. "I hope my friends will understand we have reached this point, and there's no other choice."

Sharon wants to build a coalition that will give him the backing to move ahead with his disengagement plan without going through new elections that would delay that process for months.

"The disengagement will be implemented, period. I repeat, it will be implemented, period," Sharon said Thursday.

The Shinui or Change party voted against the proposed budget to protest a deal Sharon made with an ultra-Orthodox religious party to get its five votes.

While Wednesday's developments appeared to be a revolt by Shinui, political analysts in Israel were speculating that Sharon, a former general and acknowledged master tactician, provoked the backlash from Shinui to put pressure on the Central Committee of his Likud party.

The Likud Central Committee passed a resolution in November opposing bringing Labor into the government. Behind the scenes, Likud Central Committee members said they did not want another left-wing party in the government alongside Shinui.

With Shinui gone, the committee is expected to give Sharon the green light to invite Labor to join his coalition.

Likud Central Committee Chairman Tzachi Hanegbi, citing Sharon's sacking of the five Shinui ministers, on Thursday indicated the panel likely will reverse its ban and allow the prime minister to open negotiations with the Labor Party toward a unity government.

The negotiations also are likely to produce a shuffle in Sharon's Cabinet. Sharon told the editors that Peres can fill any role in his government but prime minister.

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