Labor and Likud on Rocky Road Toward Coalition

The Labor Party Bureau approved coalition talks with the Likud government Saturday night, and the Central Committee must now OK the idea. Some party leaders warned that nothing is yet finalized.

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, | updated: 23:44

Labor is demanding the same Interior Ministry post that many in the Likud say belongs to them. Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, a leading Likud candidate for the post, told Likud mayors last week, "Either the Interior Ministry, or new elections."

Labor also insists on receiving the Education Ministry, held now by Likud stalwart Limor Livnat, as well as the Infrastructures Ministry. So said Labor faction head MK Dalia Itzik. She threw an additional obstacle on the road to a Labor/Likud coalition by demanding that coalition talks include the Shinui party. Shinui left the coalition earlier this month when its five Cabinet ministers were fired after voting against the first reading of the proposed 2005 budget.

Labor party sources admitted Saturday night that there remains a large gap between the two parties. "We want much more than they are prepared to give," one source told the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot.

The talks between Likud and Labor began last night. The Likud team includes Minister Tzippy Livni and faction head Gideon Ezra, and Labor's representatives are, among others, faction head Dalia Itzik and MKs Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Chaim Ramon.

Budgetary issues also divide the parties, with the Labor demanding an end to cuts in monthly pensioner allocations and a drop in university tuition. The difference between the sides is only some 200 million shekels, and a compromise is expected.

Histadrut Union leader MK Amir Peretz, whose Am Echad party is aligned with Labor, said he would not support the proposed coalition agreement if the Likud does not soften its basic policies on social and economic issues.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to offer Labor up to eight cabinet posts, including two minister-without-portfolio positions. The most senior and prestigious post will be offered to Peres, and is likely to be a new one tailored specifically for him: Minister of Disengagement or Gaza Development. He will use it to enlist support for rehabilitating PA-controlled Gaza, seeking to turn a Jew-free Gaza into a viable PA trade zone.

Usually, the two major parties in a national unity government share the three top posts – Defense, Finance, and Foreign Affairs. This is not likely to be the case this time, however, as Sharon is not anxious to bump neither of the popular ministers Silvan Shalom (Foreign Affairs) or Binyamin Netanyahu (Finance); Labor has not expressed an interest in the Defense Ministry, held by Sharon-loyalist Sha'ul Mofaz.

Labor will most likely select from among Interior, National Infrastructures, Environment, Science – all held by Shinui until this month – as well as Housing, Welfare, Absorption, Agriculture and Tourism. Labor will also receive 2-3 deputy ministerial posts, as well as Knesset committee chair positions.

The Likud will likely retain, in addition to the Big Three mentioned above, Justice, Public Security, and Transportation. Should Shas be invited to join the coalition, the picture would be somewhat more complicated, as Shas would have to receive at least three ministerial portfolios. Sharon will meet this evening with Shas leader MK Eli Yeshai.

The United Torah Judaism Party, also likely to enter the coalition, will continue its policy of requesting only deputy ministerial posts, as well as the chair of the Knesset Finance Committee.

Sources close to the Prime Minister say he wishes to form his new government and swear in the new ministers by as soon as December 20th, eight days from now.

Labor chairman Shimon Peres warned his party members that it is more important to help the Sharon government carry out the proposed expulsion of Gaza's Jews than to force early elections. Peres rejected the stance of a large minority of Labor MKs who want a temporary coalition that would end if and when the government carries out the expulsion plan. Some voices in the Labor still say, however, that this is precisely what will occur. The Labor primaries for a new leader will be held, according to a compromise reached at the end of last week, at the end of June.