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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 October, 2004, 11:59 GMT 12:59 UK
Sharon rushes to widen coalition
Ariel Sharon in the Knesset
The prime minister faces a difficult parliamentary session
Israel's prime minister is stepping up efforts to form a new coalition after suffering a setback in parliament over his Gaza plan.

Deputies voted to reject Ariel Sharon's speech opening the Knesset's winter session - an unprecedented move in the turbulent history of Israeli politics.

He has begun overtures to the religious Shas party, while allies also predicted moves to bring in the Labour party.

Mr Sharon lost his majority in June over plans to uproot Jewish settlers.

The 53-44 vote to reject his speech came about when pro-settler members of his Likud party joined forces with Labour deputies protesting against his economic policies.

We need anyone who can be brought in to create a government that enables the prime minister to make historic decisions
Deputy PM Ehud Olmert
The vote has no legislative significance, but correspondents said it underlined the problems Mr Sharon faces getting through his Gaza withdrawal plan.

Under the terms of the plan, 8,000 Jewish settlers and the troops who protect them would begin leaving Gaza - home to about 1.3 million Palestinian residents - early in 2005.

But deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Mr Sharon would now need to broaden the governing coalition to save the plan.

"We need anyone who can be brought into the government to create a government that ... enables the prime minister to make historic decisions," Mr Olmert said.

He added that primarily this meant a partnership with the opposition Labour party, which is an enthusiastic supporter of the pullout.

Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz has meanwhile been dispatched to meet the spiritual leader of Shas to explore the possibility of its joining the coalition.

Early vote

Previous efforts to include Labour have failed, and the issue was complicated in the summer when Likud's centre committee voted to rule out coalition talks with Labour. Mr Sharon said he would ignore the vote.

Bringing in ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties like Shas might alienate Mr Sharon's main coalition partner, the aggressively secular Shinui party.

Mr Sharon's only alternative to widening his coalition is believed to be early elections - which would probably delay the timetable for the Gaza pullout.

On Monday, he told a noisy Knesset that he would present the pullout plan for approval on 25 October.

Amid heckling from pro-settler MKs, Mr Sharon said dismantling all 21 settlements in Gaza and four isolated settlements in the West Bank was in Israel's strategic interest.

"It is essential for us to see that our friends, especially the United States, stand by us," he said.

Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip since capturing them in the 1967 war. Settlement activity by the occupying power is deemed illegal under international law.

Last week Mr Sharon's top adviser sparked controversy by saying the disengagement plan was a way of putting peace negotiations, and a future Palestinian state, on ice indefinitely.

But in his parliamentary speech on Monday, Mr Sharon said Israel accepted the international peace plan known as the road map, which foresees two states, Israel and Palestine, living together in peace.

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