Old foes and friends, Sharon and Peres again talk unity government

jerusalem | With the slow inevitability of ships meeting out at sea, Israel’s two elder statesmen appear to be coming together to steer the country through one of the most turbulent periods in its history.

Opposition leader Shimon Peres on July 13 won his Labor Party’s approval to accept Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s offer of talks on a national unity government.

For most Israelis, a deal between the two longtime political rivals — and personal friends — appeared a given, with the only question being how the rest of the future coalition would look.

The current government, under Sharon’s Likud Party, needs urgent buttressing. He fired two ministers from the right-wing National Union bloc last month to win Cabinet approval for his plan to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

That left Sharon in command of just 59 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, with another right-wing coalition partner, the National Religious Party, threatening to bolt over Sharon’s determination to cede land to the Palestinians.

Allying with Labor means the support of its 19 lawmakers for Sharon’s Gaza plan, a political lifeline of which Peres is well aware.

“They say we’re being used,” the 80-year-old dove told skeptical fellow Laborites in Tel Aviv. “What are they using us for? To bring peace? Should we be embarrassed by that?”

Most political analysts think Peres will want to return to his old role as Israel’s foreign minister, adding diplomatic polish to Sharon’s unilateralism, which the Palestinians decry as a ploy to duck their demand for all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But the current officeholder, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, has made clear he will not go quietly, and is already leading a group of Likud “rebels” against any alliance with Labor.

Another senior Likudnik, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, insists as a precondition of coalition talks that Peres accept Netanyahu’s belt-tightening budgetary policies — a long shot given Labor’s recent vocal championing of Israel’s economic underclass.

Sharon on July 12 threatened the rebels within his party with the prospect of a return to the polls.

“If you don’t want this or that, we can go to elections. That’s the way it is,” Sharon told the Likud’s Knesset faction, referring to the option of a national-unity government.

The prime minister also must plan further ahead, for the likely loss of the NRP from his Cabinet once the Gaza plan gets rolling.

As fervently Orthodox parties — representing, respectively, Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews — Shas and United Torah Judaism historically have demonstrated greater flexibility on territorial concessions than their Zionist religious brethren in the National Union and NRP.

There’s a hitch: Sharon’s current core coalition partner, the secularist Shinui Party, refuses to sit in a government with the fervently Orthodox. But Shinui’s footing also is unsure, given the implication last week of one of its senior members, Infrastructure Minister Yosef Paritzky, in a bribery conspiracy.