Labor Party says it won't join Sharon


Published: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 at 1:32 a.m.

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel's opposition Labor Party declared Tuesday it wouldn't join a government headed by Ariel Sharon -- a move that further complicates the messy political scene and makes it highly unlikely any party can form a stable coalition following Jan. 28 elections.

"We will not be in a government led by Sharon. Period," Labor leader Amram Mitzna said at party headquarters in Tel Aviv, flanked by almost all of Labor's 26 parliament members. "It's us or him. Anyone who doesn't vote Labor is voting for Sharon."

In another development, Sharon's campaign adviser, Lior Chorev, filed a complaint with police charging that police agents have been following him and other party activists and broke into a lawyer's office to steal computer files. "I have only questions, not answers," he told Israel TV, implying that the police were targeting Sharon's party.

Police spokesman Gil Kleiman responded, "This is a failed attempt by certain elements to tie the police to something that is completely untrue, totally baseless, and undeserving of a serious response."

Sharon and his hawkish Likud party have been hit by scandal charges, which have cut into its strength in the polls. Sharon and his sons are under investigation about a $1.5 million loan from a South Africa-based merchant, and there were charges of corruption, payoffs and underworld links to the party's internal elections.

The Likud is still favored to win the largest number of seats, with the left-leaning Labor Party coming in second, according to polls. However, no party will even approach an outright majority in the 120-seat parliament, and the next government will again be a coalition of several parties.

Likud and Labor were partners in the coalition that collapsed in November, and Sharon, the current prime minister, would like them to again join forces in a unity government at a time when Israel faces a continuing conflict with the Palestinians.

"In light of the challenges facing us and those we can expect in the future, a national unity government is more important than ever," Sharon said Tuesday at a ceremony inaugurating a new stretch of highway in the coastal city of Haifa. Mitzna, the mayor of Haifa, also attended, but left before Sharon began speaking.

If Sharon's party wins the election but can't persuade Labor to join the government, it would face difficulties in forming a coalition. Sharon could seek a grouping of several small extreme-right and religious parties, but that would likely produce a narrow and highly unstable coalition.

The negotiations could easily stretch out for weeks after the election -- and if no coalition is formed, Israel could face yet another election.

With 15 or more parties likely to win seats in parliament, no single party is capable of getting a majority, leading to unwieldy coalitions. No Israeli government has served out its full term since 1988, and the Jan. 28 ballot will be the fourth national election in less than seven years.

Israeli voters choose a party, not a candidate for prime minister. The party leader able to form a majority coalition in parliament becomes premier.

Sharon and Mitzna have very different approaches to the conflict with the Palestinians. Sharon is trying to crush the 28-month-old Palestinian uprising by force and has vowed not to resume peace talks until all attacks on Israelis stop.

Mitzna says he is ready to resume negotiations with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat now, and would, as one of his first acts in office, order a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip. If talks on the fate of the West Bank produce no results after a year, Mitzna says he would unilaterally draw Israel's border and erect a security fence to keep Palestinian attackers out.

In declaring Sharon unfit to be prime minister, Labor did not focus on his political platform but on recent corruption allegations against Sharon and his sons, Omri and Gilad.

Police are investigating a $1.5 million loan to Sharon's sons by a longtime friend of the prime minister, South Africa-based businessman Cyril Kern. The money was allegedly used to pay back improper contributions to a 1999 Sharon campaign.

Labor left the Sharon government in November in a dispute over funding for settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, forcing the prime minister to call early elections.

Several senior Labor officials have expressed support for a national unity government, including Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the party leader until last November. However, the chief of Labor's parliamentary faction, Ofir Pines, said all were backing Mitzna's position now. Ben-Eliezer was among those at Mitzna's side during the announcement Tuesday.

Adding to the coalition complications, the centrist Shinui party, which is expected to emerge as the third-largest party, has said it would only join a coalition that does not include ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. The key point on Shinui's agenda is to reduce what it calls the disproportionate influence of those parties.

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