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Last Updated: Friday, 10 December, 2004, 15:09 GMT
Analysis: Sharon plans back on track

By Barbara Plett
BBC News, Jerusalem

Israelis opposed to the Gaza withdrawal plan form a human chain in protest, 25 July 2004
Jewish settlers are opposed to a plan to pull out of Gaza
After a series of defeats Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has regained mastery over his ruling Likud Party.

On Thursday night its central committee voted by more than two to one to approve coalition talks with the main opposition Labour Party.

This may signal at least a pause in the crises that have rocked Israel's government for the past six months.

It will also help Mr Sharon implement his controversial disengagement plan to withdraw unilaterally Jewish soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank.

The Likud vote reversed a party ban on bringing Labour into government, issued in August.

The veto was part of a revolt against Mr Sharon's disengagement policy, within both the central committee and Likud's parliamentary faction.

Many in the party oppose giving up any of the land Israel occupied in the 1967 Mid East war, especially if they get nothing in return.

Knowing that Labour supports the Gaza withdrawal, they were not happy about inviting it to share power.

Little choice

They are still not happy, but the government is much weaker now.

It controls only one third of parliament after losing three coalition partners in disputes over disengagement and the budget.

Israel will pull out all its 8,000 settlers from 21 fortified enclaves in Gaza
Israel will maintain control of Gaza's borders, coastline and airspace
Four isolated West Bank settlements also to be evacuated
With his government struggling to survive, Mr Sharon told Likud the choice was between Labour and early elections.

Likud chose Labour, on condition that the prime minister also invites in two ultra orthodox parties to temper Labour's left wing influence.

The prime minister has moved immediately to begin coalition talks.

If they are concluded as rapidly as pundits predict, Israel could have a relatively stable government until after the Gaza withdrawal next summer.

Labour is divided about whether to jump ship then or support the government until its mandate ends in November 2006.

Violence fears

A national unity government in Israel will increase western and Arab hopes about the chances of reviving the peace process, already high after the death of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom Israel and the US labelled an "obstacle to peace".

Certainly Labour also hopes that disengagement in Gaza can become a plank on which to build a process leading to a comprehensive peace deal.

Ariel Sharon voting on Thursday
There are fears violence may be used to stop Ariel Sharon's plans
So far, however, Ariel Sharon maintains that his plan is a unilateral move which he would at most co-ordinate with a new Palestinian leadership.

Any return to substantive political negotiations, he says, depends on whether the Palestinian Authority is willing and able to disarm the militias and stop attacks against Israelis.

As for his internal opponents (Likud rebels and their allies who want to maintain Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza), they will probably still continue to press for early elections as a way of delaying disengagement.

They may also try to derail a crucial cabinet vote scheduled for March on when to begin the actual evacuation of settlements.

Still, the anti-disengagement right has suffered a blow.

And if it believes there is no way to defeat Mr Sharon politically, there are fears that some of its members may turn to extra-parliamentary opposition, such as civil disobedience, or, in the worst case scenario, violence.

In the past security and political officials have expressed concern that radical opponents of disengagement might use weapons to try and stop evacuation, or even attempt to assassinate the prime minister.

In 1995 former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down by a right-wing Jewish student after he had agreed to withdraw Israeli troops from Palestinian towns in the West Bank.

Why the vote was crucial for Sharon

Israel and the Palestinians



Palestinian women sit on a roof top of the home of a Palestinian family in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on 20 November 2006. Human shields
Palestinians adopt a new tactic to deter Israeli attacks, but this is a high-risk strategy




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