Ariel Sharon underlined his intention to form a new unity government of the Israeli political centre with Labour by warning dissident right-wingers in his own party yesterday that he would call fresh elections if they blocked a coalition deal.
His warning came after a meeting with the Labour leader, Shimon Peres, at which the two men agreed to negotiate a new coalition in order to push through the plan to withdraw 7,500 settlers from Gaza.
The plan is opposed by the far-right of both the present coalition and of Mr Sharon's own party. The proposed coalition would align the government much more closely with Israeli public opinion, which repeated polls have shown strongly supports the planned pull-out from Gaza.
At a meeting of his own party's members in the Knesset, Mr Sharon castigated supposed coalition supporters for failing to back the government in repeated confidence votes, and declared: "This is something that, of course, cannot continue. If it does continue, this places me in a position where I must form a new coalition." He added that if he could not "broaden" the coalition he would have to "go for elections".
The Labour leader made it clear to his own Knesset members that he saw a coalition as essential to ensure the success of the plan to end all 21 Gaza settlements along with four small ones in the northern West Bank.
While a realignment of the government is now highly probable one way or the other, the terms of Labour's entry still have to be negotiated in detail. Mr Peres has made it clear that he wants to see the Gaza disengagement plan, due to be completed by the end of 2005, speeded up, and that he supports renewed peace negotiations with Ahmad Qureia, the Palestinian Prime Minister.
At the same time, Mr Peres' supporters in the Labour party want to see him replace Sylvan Shalom as Foreign Minister, although Mr Sharon may instead try to offer the Labour leader a wide-ranging portfolio, possibly as a deputy Prime Minister, in order to keep Mr Shalom in the post. Mr Shalom and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Finance Minister and the likeliest Likud candidate to succeed to the premiership, have both indicated their possible resistance to the coalition plan. There is also strong opposition on the left to a new centrist coalition which may include a minority within the Labour Party.
In Gaza itself, neighbours said a 70-year-old paralysed Palestinian man was crushed to death when an Israeli army bulldozer demolished his home during a raid to raze buildings which the army said were militant gunposts.
Palestinian medics and witnesses said Ibrahim Mahmoud Khalafallah was inside his home when the bulldozer arrived and his family was not given enough time to get him out before it was wrecked. They said the raid was accompanied by heavy gunfire from armoured vehicles. Ahmed Hammoud, a 28-year-old father of four children whose house was also demolished, said: "I was in the house with my family when the bulldozer came in. We fled ... We couldn't save anything, not a bed nor the refrigerator. Nothing. We didn't know they were coming." He added: The bulldozer buried our neighbour and he died ... Everything happened in 10 minutes."
Mr Khalafallah's cousin Suheila said his family told the bulldozer driver that the man was inside but could not stop it. Palestinian security sources said 26 houses were destroyed.
Military sources said the troops made every effort to make sure that the buildings which they said were flimsy shacks or unfinished structures were empty and warned people to leave, but they had not searched a minority of the buildings for fear they could be booby-trapped. The sources said troops had called in Arabic for people to leave.
Meanwhile government officials angrily dismissed apparent hints by the Palestinian Authority President, Yasser Arafat, that Israel could have been responsible for the bomb which killed a 19-year-old woman soldier in Tel Aviv on Sunday.Reuse content