Peres deal ensures Gaza withdrawal

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The Independent Online

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reached a deal with Shimon Peres yesterday to name the opposition leader as his senior deputy, thus creating a stable coalition government capable of abandoning the occupied Gaza Strip.

The new coalition should assure the Israeli Prime Minister of a comfortable majority to push through his plan to evacuate 25 Gaza and West Bank settlements by the end of next year.

Mr Peres, Labour's 81-year-old elder statesman, facilitated a compromise when he swallowed his pride and agreed to take third place behind Mr Sharon and his Likud deputy, Ehud Olmert. He had earlier insisted on parity with Mr Olmert, which would have required legislation since the law limits the number of vice-premiers to one.

Menachem Mazuz, the Attorney-General, had expressed reservations about tinkering with the constitution to deal with a specific case. At the same time, MPs were refusing to be rushed, leaving Mr Sharon with a minority government that found it hard to pass a budget, let alone a bill to compensate the evacuated settlers.

That measure, and other disengagement provisions, should now enjoy a more rapid passage through the 120-member Knesset. Mr Sharon is planning to seek formal cabinet approval in February to evacuate the settlements.

Up to 13 of Likud's 40 MPs were still threatening yesterday to resist the Gaza pull-out, but as well as Labour (19 seats) within the coalition, Mr Sharon can rely on the centrist Shinui and left-wing Yahad, with 15 and six respectively, to support the evacuation from the opposition benches. The six-member ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party is expected to follow Labour into the coalition.

Mr Olmert provoked hardliners further yesterday when he predicted that the Government would need to carry out another large-scale withdrawal from the occupied West Bank after disengagement had been completed. "Israel's interest requires a disengagement on a wider scale than what will happen as part of the current disengagement plan," the Vice-Premier said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post. The English-language daily noted that Mr Olmert had often been the first to go public with future policy. "Last year," it recalled, "in what was widely viewed as a trial balloon, he called for unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, just weeks ahead of a similar move by Sharon." Labour will have eight ministers in the new line-up and they know from the start their influence will be severely limited. But they can't risk rocking the boat, even though they disagree with Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's Thatcherite social and economic policies.

Unlike previous "national unity" governments, Labour will fill none of the major posts.

"Our main aim," explained Isaac Herzog, who will get the housing ministry, "is to help Sharon carry out the disengagement plan. But we shall have to sit with Netanyahu in government." Despite Mr Peres' continued dominance, Labour signalled a change of generations last week when the 2,000-member central committee awarded the top places after him on its list of ministers to two men in their early forties. Ofir Pines-Paz, 43, an outspoken critic of Mr Sharon, took first place and Mr Herzog, 44, son of the late President Chaim Herzog, second place.