JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) renewed efforts Tuesday to expand his embattled coalition government, declaring the current political deadlock untenable after his Gaza Strip (search) pullout plan suffered an embarrassing blow in parliament.
Sharon dispatched Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to meet with the spiritual leader of Shas, a religious opposition party that has so far withheld support for the Gaza plan.
It was the first of many feelers Sharon is expected to put out in the coming days as he tries to shore up his government, which has lost its parliamentary majority due to opposition to the pullout.
Also Tuesday, a 10-year-old Palestinian girl was shot in the chest and critically wounded by Israeli gunfire as she stood outside a United Nations school in a southern Gaza refugee camp, U.N. and Palestinian medical officials said. The army said its troops had opened fire in the area after being attacked by Palestinian mortar shells, and said it was investigating the shooting.
Sharon wants to pull all Israeli troops and settlers out of Gaza next year but faces growing opposition by his traditional hard-line allies in parliament.
At Monday's opening of its winter session, lawmakers rejected Sharon's state-of-the-nation policy speech, in which he defended his Gaza plan. The vote was symbolic, but reflected the significant opposition he faces. Roughly a quarter of lawmakers from Sharon's Likud Party (search) voted against the speech.
Over the heckling of hard-line lawmakers, Sharon said he would present the pullout plan for approval Oct. 25 and then would bring a bill for compensating the 8,500 settlers to be evacuated.
Israeli officials and analysts said Monday's vote would force Sharon to court opposition parties or call early parliamentary elections. The next elections are scheduled for 2006.
Sharon said Tuesday he wants to avoid elections.
"The current political situation can't continue, but I will do everything to prevent early elections," he said at a meeting with Justice Minister Joseph Lapid.
Mofaz, a close confidant of Sharon, met Tuesday with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas' spiritual leader, and other party officials, in a bid to persuade the Orthodox party to support the Gaza plan. The two sides did not reach an agreement, but talks are expected to continue.
Political officials said Sharon would also hold meetings with Labor, the main opposition party, and other religious parties.
Dalia Itzik, a senior Labor lawmaker, said the party's 21 lawmakers will support Sharon when he brings the Gaza plan to a vote. She also said the party would be willing to join the government to avoid new elections.
"If we see that he won't have a government without us, we'll help him," she said in an interview.
Sharon's options are limited. Likud has voted against adding Labor to the government, while bringing in religious parties would alienate the secular Shinui, now Sharon's main coalition partner.
Sharon plans to dismantle all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four small enclaves in the West Bank. After four years of fighting with the Palestinians, Sharon says the plan will boost security and rally international support.
The evacuation is to begin next summer and last about 12 weeks, according to a government timetable, but Sharon's government might not survive that long.
Sharon said Israel still accepts the wider ranging U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, but the Palestinians have scuttled it by failing to stop militants from attacking Israelis and refusing to reform their administration. Palestinians charge Israeli occupation and military operations are perpetuating the violence.
Sharon left open the option of changing the pullout plan if security deteriorates.
Sharon's hard-line critics fear the Gaza plan is just the beginning of a larger withdrawal from the West Bank. The deep ideological disagreements are expected to dominate the new parliamentary session.
Hanan Crystal, Israel Radio's political commentator, said Sharon will likely muster enough votes to push the disengagement plan through parliament. He estimated some 70 lawmakers in the 120-member parliament support the plan.