Sharon and rival Mitzna hold coalition talks

Time of article published Feb 3, 2003

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Jerusalem - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met Labour Party leader Amram Mitzna on Monday for the first time since the country's election to try to convince his main political rival to join the broad coalition government he hopes to form.

Mitzna pledged before the January 28 election - in which Sharon's right-wing Likud crushed Labour - not to lead his centre-left party into a ruling coalition with the prime minister.

"Sharon will try to persuade Mitzna to rethink his position, for the good of the nation, the peace process and even the Labour party," a source in the prime minister's office said after talks between the two former generals began.

Likud won 38 seats in the 120-member parliament, replacing Labour - which dropped from 26 seats to 19 - as Israel's biggest party.

Political analysts attributed Labour's poor performance to the fact that the Palestinian uprising for statehood has shattered its image as patron of Middle East peace deals, and to Mitzna's pledge not to enter a coalition with Sharon.

Mitzna has been a fierce critic of Sharon's tough security stance. He advocates dismantling Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Palestinians want for a state, and unconditionally resuming peace talks.

Sharon, 74, is a champion of the settlements who refuses to negotiate until the violence, in which at least 1 811 Palestinians and 698 Israelis have been killed, is quelled.

But the prime minister has also endorsed the Middle East "vision" of United States President George Bush, which calls for reciprocal steps bringing security for Israel and statehood - albeit geographically undefined - for the Palestinians.

"Labour should understand that the vision is the diplomatic course for the goverment," said the source in Sharon's office.

The bad blood between Mitzna, 57, and Sharon runs deep. As a senior officer in 1982, Mitzna publicly attacked Sharon's handling of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Sharon was the minister of defence at the time.

But with Labour's political prospects in doubt, and Israelis jittery at the likelihood of a US-led war on Iraq and continuing domestic recession, Mitzna has hinted he may change his mind on joining a coalition.

"This is not capricious," senior Labourite Haim Ramon said. "We never discounted Sharon as prime minister."

Once he receives an official nod from President Moshe Katzav this week, Sharon will have up to 42 days to form a government.

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