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Sharon party agrees coalition plan


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Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is working to maintain his coalition government.
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Israeli Prime Minister Sharon's Likud Party allows him to form a new government.
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JERUSALEM, Israel (CNN) -- The central committee of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's ruling Likud party has voted to allow Sharon to form a new government that would include the opposition Labor Party.

The vote gives Sharon the backing he needs to form a new coalition intent on carrying out his plan to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

Sharon won the support of 62 percent of the 2,267 central committee members who voted, party officials announced.

Sharon wants Israel to withdraw all its troops and about 8,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza and four small areas in the northern West Bank.

But Sharon has battled an ongoing rebellion within his own party, led by parliament member Uzi Landau.

Israel Radio published a poll Thursday that showed 70 percent of Israelis would support a Likud-Labor unity government.

But the survey showed Sharon's own party was split: 48 percent of Likud members surveyed backed Sharon, while 41 percent did not.

After a budget battle last week, Sharon fired members of the Shinui (Hebrew for Change) Party, leaving his government with control of only 40 seats in the 120-member parliament, The Knesset.

The Labor Party and its leader, former Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, have supported the Gaza disengagement plan.

However, Labor's agreement on joining the government is not automatic. Next Sunday, Labor will decide when to hold new party leadership elections.

Peres wants to put those elections off until the coalition talks are over, but former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, trying to make a comeback, wants to go ahead with the election.

A new leadership at the top of Labor would pose new difficulties for Sharon in forming a new government.

Bringing Labor into the coalition would provide Sharon with 59 seats.

Sharon is expected to open negotiations with two ultra-Orthodox religious parties -- United Torah Judaism, which has five seats, and Shas, which has 11 seats -- in an attempt to reach a majority.

Sharon has insisted that the disengagement plan will go through. He has resisted holding new elections, saying that doing so would only delay implementation of the plan.

Polls show that Sharon remains the most popular politician in Israel, but he has warned that his own party will suffer if he is forced to call new elections.

Polls have also shown that more than 80 percent of Israelis back the Gaza engagement plan.

The turmoil in the Israeli government comes as the Palestinian Authority plans to hold elections January 9 to replace the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

In addition, a poll published Thursday showed that most Palestinians felt that attacks on Israelis were counterproductive.

The poll, conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, showed 52 percent of Palestinians opposed attacks on Israeli targets and believed they were counterproductive to the Palestinian interests.

A poll in June found that only 27 percent of Palestinians opposed attacks on Israeli targets.


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