This national unity government is what Israel needs

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The Independent Online

Coalitions are delicate creatures, and the coalitions that have governed Israel in recent years have been more delicate than most, reflecting the intricacies of Israeli politics and the volatility of the region. So news that agreement has finally been reached on the status of the veteran Labour leader, Shimon Peres, in a new national unity coalition, headed by Ariel Sharon, represents a promising advance.

It is promising, first, because it means that fresh elections will be avoided, with all the uncertainty they would entail. With Israel's withdrawal from Gaza planned for next summer, and perhaps sooner, an election would be a highly unwelcome disruption. Mr Sharon campaigned hard to gain Knesset approval for the withdrawal. It would be regrettable in the extreme if the same battles had to be fought over again, especially as the climate of Israeli opinion is strongly in favour of leaving Gaza.

It is promising, second, because a coalition which brings together Mr Sharon's Likud Party and the Labour Party of Mr Peres has the potential to be a government of real national unity. A broad coalition of this sort is exactly what Mr Sharon will need to weather the storms that lie ahead, not only over Gaza, but in the expected negotiations with the Palestinians, once their new leader is elected.

The news is promising, third, because it brings back into government at a very senior level not only one of the most experienced and authoritative figures in Israeli politics, but one of those long intent on establishing peace with the Palestinians. In administrative terms, Mr Peres will cede precedence to the Likud vice-prime minister who will remain Mr Sharon's deputy; this is what the past three weeks of talking have been about. In political terms, however, it is Mr Peres who will be Mr Sharon's number two and could well lead future talks with the Palestinians.

In short, it is hard to conceive of any arrangement that offers better prospects for political stability in Israel, for the withdrawal from Gaza and for re-starting talks with the Palestinians. Assignment of most ministerial portfolios has yet to be finalised, but agreement on Mr Peres's role means that formation of this much-needed coalition is no longer in doubt.