Israeli coalition talks take a bitter turn

Israel’s ruling Kadima party on Thursday threatened to exclude the centre-left Labour from the new government as coalition talks took an increasingly bitter turn after the Passover holiday.

Although prime-minister designate Ehud Olmert has reached an agreement in principle with Labour on joining the incoming government, a definite deal has remained elusive in the two weeks since he was tasked with forming a coalition.

His Kadima party and Labour officials redrew their battle lines before talks resumed after the Jewish Passover holiday, with neither side vowing to capitulate on their demands at any price.

High-ranking Kadima officials said on Thursday that a new government would be in place by May 4—the four-week deadline given by President Moshe Katsav to Olmert to assemble a coalition—“with or without Labour”.

The centrist party emerged as the biggest force in the new-look Israeli Parliament, which was sworn in on Monday under the shadow of a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, winning 29 seats to Labour’s 19 in a March 28 general election.

“Labour will not be a coalition partner at any price. They lost the elections and we won,” Kadima officials told the Yediot Aharonot newspaper on condition of anonymity.

“There are nearly 90 Knesset members who are interested in being part of the coalition and the Labour party has only 19 seats. They need to understand that they do not make the rules of the game,” the sources added.

Disagreements remain over Labour’s insistence that the minimum wage be swiftly increased from $700 to $1 000 a month—a cornerstone of its manifesto—and for party leader Amir Peretz to become finance minister.

“If necessary we will make this [finance-ministry] demand an ultimatum.
We must not give the impression that Labour is in Kadima’s pocket,” MP Ophir Pines told army radio.

“It would be nice to see Ehud Olmert go to the United States next month with a government without Labour, understanding that Kadima is only linked to extreme-right and ultra-Orthodox groups,” said Labour MP Hagai Meron.

Olmert made the March election a de facto referendum on his plan to fix the final borders of Israel by leaving parts of the occupied West Bank and retaining major settlements, with or without agreement from the Palestinians.

His so-called convergence plan, which he is to present to US officials in his first trip to Washington as prime minister next month, is likely to see Israel uproot about 70 000 Jews living in the West Bank.

In return he wants to cement Israeli control of the vast Jewish housing blocs, which are home to tens of thousands of settlers.

To push through his ambitious project, aides say he is determined to form as broad-based a coalition as possible among the two-thirds of MPs believed to be in favour of his vision of permanently separating from the Palestinians.

Most commentators, however, believe that Labour and Kadima will agree at the last-minute on a compromise deal that will see the centre-left party a key part of the next government.

Aside from Labour, Olmert needs to secure at least another 13 seats to exercise a minimum majority of 61 MPs, making the ultra-Orthodox Shas and nationalist Yisrael Beitenu likely coalition partners.

Talks are also scheduled on Thursday with Shas, fellow Orthodox party United Torah Judaism, Yisrael Beiteinu and the Pensioners.—AFP

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