Sharon Plans to Build New Coalition

Fresh from a painful parliamentary defeat, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) said Thursday he'll turn to his old rivals in the Labor Party to save his shattered coalition and get the support he needs to leave the Gaza Strip.

Speaking to Israeli newspaper and broadcast editors, Sharon also extended something of an olive branch to the Palestinians, saying Israel won't launch offensives in their territory if the situation remains calm.

As Sharon's government hung in the balance, Palestinians were playing out their own political drama.

The presidential candidacy of interim leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) took a hit when Marwan Barghouti (search), an uprising leader jailed by Israel, entered the race for Jan. 9 elections to replace Yasser Arafat as Palestinian Authority president.

Barghouti, who enjoys folk hero status in the West Bank, was criticized by fellow Palestinian leaders for jeopardizing the unity of the Fatah party and hurting prospects for a smooth transition of power in the wake of Arafat's death Nov. 11.

Hopes for an uncomplicated transition suffered another blow when the militant group Islamic Jihad announced Thursday that it would boycott the vote, joining the larger of the two violent Islamic groups, Hamas, which on Wednesday called on its members to stay away from the polls.

On Wednesday, Sharon dismissed one of his key coalition partners, the secular-rights Shinui party, after it voted against his 2005 budget. That left Sharon, whose government was already close to collapsing due to hard-line opposition to his Gaza withdrawal, with only 40 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

If Sharon can't patch together a new coalition, he would be forced to call early elections, an outcome that could stall his plans to withdraw all Israeli troops and civilians from Gaza next year.

Speaking to the Israeli journalists, Sharon said he'd seek to bring Labor and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties into his government. "We are standing before fateful decisions, and it's important that there be a broad and stable coalition," Sharon said.

Labor is seen likely to agree to join to salvage the Gaza pullout. However, many Labor stalwarts oppose linking up with Sharon, their traditional ideological and political rival.

The withdrawal from Gaza and four West Bank settlements is seen as key to restarting Mideast peace talks.

Sharon said nothing will stop him from carrying out the withdrawal. "Disengagement will be implemented, period," he said twice.

The plan had been intended as a unilateral action, but since Arafat's death, Sharon has spoken of coordinating the pullout with the Palestinians.

Palestinian election officials announced Thursday that 10 candidates have qualified to run for the presidency, including Abbas and Barghouti, who is serving five life terms after being convicted of involvement in fatal Palestinian attacks.

Sharon said Barghouti will stay in prison. "He can [campaign] according to the conditions in the prison in which he sits," the prime minister said.

Israel has said it planned to ease conditions in the West Bank and Gaza so as not to interfere with the election. Since Arafat's death, the level of violence between the two sides has decreased.

Sharon said Israel would carry out military actions only if it sensed an imminent attack or if it were attacked.

"If there is quiet, we of course will not act," Sharon said.