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Sharon wins party's backing for coalition with Labour opposition

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, won decisive backing from his ruling Likud party yesterday for his plan to form a "unity" government with the opposition Labour Party.

The estimated 62 to 38 per cent majority in the party's powerful, 3,000-member central committee clears the way for immediate talks on the coalition with Labour that Mr Sharon needs to push through his plan to withdraw more than 7,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza next year.

The vote, a defeat for far-right dissidents who had sought to scupper both coalition talks with Labour and Gaza disengagement, represents a notable turn-around for Mr Sharon after the embarrassing defeat for his disengagement plan in a referendum of Likud members in May. Mr Sharon had earlier warned the party that he would call a general election if they voted against the new coalition.

In the wake of the collapse of his parliamentary majority in a budget vote last week, Mr Sharon now has a good chance of forming a new government with Labour and two ultra-orthodox religious parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas. Five ministers from the secular Shinui party voted themselves out of government last week by opposing the budget. As he arrived to cast his own vote yesterday, the Prime Minister had said: "Either Israel progresses or goes to [general] elections."

Lieutenants of Mr Sharon had correctly predicted this week that fears of Likud members losing their Knesset seats and the new hopes of political progress in the wake of Yasser Arafat's death would combine to defeat those opposing the disengagement plan. An Israel Radio poll yesterday showed more than 70 per cent of Israeli voters are in favour of a Likud-Labour unity government.

Mr Sharon also benefited from his success during the Knesset vote in favour of Gaza disengagement in October in facing down his leadership rival and Finance Minister Benjamin Netnyahu who withdrew a dramatic threat to resign if the disengagement plan was not put to a national referendum. Mr Netanyahu made clear his backing for the coalition plan.

A second hurdle facing Mr Sharon was also cleared yesterday when Mr Peres and his challengers for the party leadership agreed a June compromise date for a contest. The April contest sought by his opponents could have made coalition talks more difficult.