Sharon Invites Opposition to Join Government

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) on Friday invited the opposition Labor Party into the government, officials said, seeking to shore up his coalition as Israel's plans to pull out of the Gaza Strip (search) move into high gear.

The move came a day after Sharon easily won approval from his Likud Party (search) to begin negotiations to bring its traditional rival into the government.

The Likud vote gave Sharon an important political victory as he pushes forward with his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank settlements in mid-2005. A government with the dovish Labor Party, along with upcoming Palestinian presidential elections, also could help restart long-stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

In a new sign of progress Friday, Israeli security officials said the army is prepared to turn over security responsibilities in northern Gaza to the Palestinians well ahead of the withdrawal.

Labor leader Shimon Peres (search) said Sharon called him early Friday to invite his party into coalition negotiations. Peres praised the Likud's decision to pursue unity talks and said his party would meet Saturday night to authorize him to open talks.

"I hope we should be able to move ahead in the direction of peace," he said. "It's not simple. It's not easy, but it is promising and the right step."

A senior government official said Sharon also invited two religious parties to open coalition talks. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said negotiations with all parties would begin early next week, with the goal of quickly reaching a new coalition arrangement.

Hard-line opposition to the Gaza withdrawal plan and a falling out with the secular-rights Shinui Party, a key coalition partner, have left Sharon with a tattered minority in the 120-member parliament. With Labor's support, Sharon will regain a majority that appears poised to be able to carry out the withdrawal.

Much of the opposition to the withdrawal has come from within the Likud, which made Thursday's vote so critical for Sharon. Last May, the Likud rank and file overwhelmingly voted against the withdrawal plan in a party referendum. Sharon ignored the vote and pressed ahead.

Despite continued misgivings over the Gaza plan, the party's Central Committee voted 62 percent to 38 percent Thursday in favor of talking to Labor, preferring that alliance to the alternative of heading to early elections.

For decades, Sharon was the leading proponent of building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and his Likud hotly opposed conceding any land to the Palestinians. Over the past year, however, Sharon changed his policy.

Sharon says the Gaza settlements, with 8,200 Jews living among more than a million Palestinians, are untenable and must be removed.

He also believes the withdrawal will give Israel a better chance to retain its main settlement blocs in the West Bank, and says his plan will head off international peace efforts unfavorable to Israel.

Labor's inclusion in the government would come at a critical time. Parliament must still approve parts of the plan in the coming months for the pullout to begin on schedule next July.

The recent death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has also helped revitalize peace prospects. Sharon has said he is ready to coordinate the pullout - and perhaps resume full peace negotiations - with the new Palestinian leadership. Sharon refused to negotiate with Arafat, accusing him of backing violence.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat called the Likud vote an "internal Israeli matter" but said he hoped the new Israeli government will "go in the direction of reviving the peace process by holding meaningful negotiations with us."

In a new sign that plans are moving forward, Israeli officials said Friday that Israel is prepared to turn over security responsibilities in northern Gaza to Palestinian forces well ahead of the pullout.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the move is meant as a test of the new Palestinian leadership's ability to crack down on militants.

Palestinian militants in northern Gaza frequently launch rockets and attempt other attacks on nearby Israeli towns. The attacks have prompted Israeli reprisals into nearby Palestinian population centers.

The officials said if the test is successful, Israel could transfer additional security responsibilities to Palestinian forces in the West Bank. They said the proposed new security arrangements would be presented to the Palestinians after the Jan. 9 presidential vote.

Israel has given tacit support to the interim Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, but does not want to openly embrace him in the run-up to the election.

Recent opinion polls show Abbas, the candidate of the ruling Fatah party, locked in a close race with imprisoned Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti.

A team of Fatah members traveled Friday to meet with Barghouti, a party member who is running as an independent. Barghouti, who is serving five life terms in an Israeli prison for his role in deadly attacks, is under heavy pressure within Fatah to exit the race.

Palestinian Planning Minister Ghassan Khatib cautiously welcomed the new Israeli proposal for northern Gaza, but said further withdrawals from Palestinian areas would be needed to reach a permanent peace deal.

Arafat's death on Nov. 11 has opened new possibilities for a breakthrough in Mideast peace talks. But a lull in fighting after his death ended in recent days.

On Thursday, an Israeli aircraft fired a missile at a car carrying Palestinian militants in southern Gaza, wounding three men, Palestinian security officials said. One was Jamal Abu Samhadana, one of the two Gaza commanders of the Popular Resistance Committees, an umbrella group of militant factions.

The Israeli military said the attack targeted a militant responsible for numerous terror attacks.