Polls close in key Likud vote on coalition talks with Labor

More than 70 percent of delegates turned out Thursday to cast a ballot in the Likud Central Committee vote on whether to hold talks with the Labor Party on joining a unity government. A relatively low turnout had caused concern for associates of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon throughout Thursday evening. The party’s ruling body began voting Thursday morning on a resolution approving the talks, a measure which may prove crucial to the success of the disengagement plan and to the survival of the Sharon government. Earlier Thursday, a Tel Aviv court rejected an appeal that could have thrown a wrench into Sharon’s hopes to present a new government to the Knesset within 10 days of the evening meeting of the Likud ruling body. Voting began at 10 A.M. to approve new talks toward a coalition „comprised of Likud, Labor and religious factions,” in the words of the resolution drafted by Sharon. The „religious factions” refers to United Torah Judaism and Shas. A high turnout had been expected to work in Sharon’s favor, and boost the chances of the resolution passing. The vote will close at 10 P.M., with the results to be announced at around midnight. Arriving at the ballot at the Exhibition Grounds in Tel Aviv on Thursday afternoon, Sharon called on the 3,000 central committee delegates to take part in the vote. „Either Israel progresses or goes to [general] elections. It is important that everyone turns up here today, votes and contributes to Israel’s progress, in every sense. It’s simple: Those who don’t vote, sink the boat. What is important is to come here and cast a ballot.” If the resolution is approved, negotiations with Labor, UTJ and Shas are expected to begin on Sunday, after Labor Chairman Shimon Peres convenes his party bureau Saturday night to obtain its formal consent to the talks. If it fails, Sharon may have little recourse but to move for early elections. An Israel Radio poll released Thursday showed that more than 70 percent of Israeli voters are in favor of a Likud-Labor unity government. But among the members of the Likud Central Committee, the survey showed 48 percent in favor, and 41 percent opposed. Two opponents of Sharon’s disengagement plan had asked the party for an additional vote on an alternative resolution, which would have effectively stalled the launch of talks with Labor. The two appealed to the Tel Aviv District Court after Likud bodies rejected their requests for debate and voting on the alternative resolution. The court rejected the petition early Thursday, paving the way for voting to begin on schedule. Assuming that he wins Thursday’s vote, Sharon’s coalition plans will face their next test Sunday, when the Labor Central Committee meets to determine a date for that party’s leadership primary. Peres has proposed that the decision be deferred until the outcome of the coalition negotiations with Likud is known. On Thursday morning, Sharon told Army Radio that he would not present any coalition agreement with Labor for approval by the Likud Central Committee. „At this stage, there is no need from a legal standpoint. There is nothing more to explain and nothing more to approve. The government of Israel approved the disengagement plan, and the time has come to draw a line under this subject.” In August, the Likud Central Committee refused to permit Sharon to form a government with Labor, but this time Sharon has backing from several key ministers who opposed him last time. Moreover, the central committee knows that the only alternative to Labor is new elections, which would probably cost the Likud a significant number of its current Knesset seats. Three months ago, it still appeared possible for the government to survive without Labor. BPI-info