Israeli hawks and doves united?

Prime Minister Sharon courted left-wing and religious parties this week to save disengagement plan.

The two opposing heavyweights in Israel's cantankerous political ring are moving closer to joining forces, a shift that could significantly alter Israel's approach in its bout with the Palestinians.

While the leaders of the right-wing Likud and left-wing Labor Party are hardly natural partners in politics - and have failed to work together well in the past - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Labor leader Shimon Peres appear to need each other in order to salvage plans to unilaterally disengage from Palestinian lives and lands.

The very fact that Labor and Likud leaders are taking the prospect of a unity government seriously suggests that the ideological differences that once distinguished them so sharply are no longer as significant as they used to be.

"The gap is not really that huge," says Avraham Diskin, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "The Labor Party used to argue that if Israel will pay a high enough price, there will be peace. That's over.

"Now I think everyone in Israel believes that peace is a very nice dream, but it's not realistic. And even the hawks in Likud say having a 'Greater Israel' is also a nice dream, but it's not realistic, either," he adds. "And so everyone believes Israel must make major concessions, maybe even allow a Palestinian state, but it won't necessarily bring peace."

Instead, the whirlpool of developments here indicate that Israel is aiming for something else - coexistence without terror. That is the best that many Israelis, left or right, believe they can get, at least in the near term.

In the view of many Israelis, that is the whole reason for building the controversial wall across the West Bank, the reason for gearing up for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and some parts of the West Bank, and the reason for putting such an unwieldy pair as Mr. Sharon and Mr. Peres behind the steering wheel.

"Arithmetically, Sharon needs the Labor Party in the government for one reason only: disengagement," Yoel Marcus wrote in the Haaretz newspaper.

But the negotiations to form a unity government, which began in earnest after a United Nations court ruled that Israel's West Bank barrier illegal, are already in danger of being mired in some of Israel's classic internal conflicts - divisions between secular and religious circles, as well as differences over whether to pursue capitalist or socialist economic policies.

Just after Sharon began speaking to the Labor Party, which has been out of power for three years, the prime minister also entered into talks with two conservative religious parties - Shas and United Torah Judaism. The move to bring the ultra-Orthodox parties into the coalition-to-be incensed members of the Labor Party, many of whom are already deeply skeptical of Sharon's intentions. The Labor Party, which led Israel into the Oslo Accords, does not want Mr. Peres to appear overly anxious to come to Sharon's aid.

But at the same time, Labor Party members are keen to forge some sort of progress in the failed peace process, and many are more supportive of Sharon's disengagement plan than Sharon's own party members.

As negotiations proceed, difficulties are also expected to emerge over socioeconomic policy under Sharon. The government's minister of finance, former Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, is a free-market advocate who has slashed many welfare programs and other social supports, making him a major opponent of Amir Peretz, a fiery national labor union leader who is often tipped as a successor to Peres. Although Mr. Peretz's "One Nation" faction recently merged with the Labor party, he announced Tuesday that he would remain in opposition even if Labor joined the government.

There are tensions as well over the pace of the withdrawal. Although some members of the Labor Party would like to go further and faster than Sharon will, they have come to a grudging acceptance that the combination of building a wall down the West Bank and dismantling settlements in Gaza is a sort of acknowledgment of the land-for-peace compromise they argued for all along.

"I think that Sharon, in spite of his impossible coalition, is moving forward," says Mr. Diskin. "The fence is there because the fence is part of disengagement, and the fence gives up, de facto, part of the territories."

Not enough, however, to satisfy Palestinians and other opponents of the fence. It became clearer that Israel would move parts of the fence closer to the Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 borders. Israeli media reports said the military would redraw the route of the wall to bring it closer to its internationally recognized territory, and will set guidelines to ensure that Palestinians are not separated from their farmlands, following a Supreme Court ruling last month.

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