The decision to drop a corruption case against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has cleared the way for him to invite the opposition Labor Party into his government, a move that would boost his efforts to pull out of the Gaza Strip.
Israeli radio stations reported Wednesday that Sharon would be meeting in the coming days with Labor leader Shimon Peres.
Labor has said it would only consider joining Sharon’s minority coalition if the prime minister was cleared of corruption allegations.
Israel’s attorney general made that possible on Tuesday, closing a lengthy bribery investigation against Sharon.
In new violence, Israeli troops damaged two mosques — making one unusable — during a search for fugitives in the West Bank city of Nablus, Palestinian witnesses and security officials said.
The army blew up walls of buildings in the densely populated Old City, allowing soldiers to move from building to building without confronting Palestinian gunmen posted in the narrow alleys.
In the West Bank town of Jenin, the Israeli army said it killed a Palestinian militant who worked with both Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, an offshoot of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement.
The army said the fugitive — and other gunmen — had fired on the troops as they tried to arrest him in a restaurant.
Labor Party mulls joining government
Sharon needs the moderate Labor Party to restore the parliamentary majority he lost as a result of his efforts to pull out of Gaza. He has fired two hard-line Cabinet ministers who opposed the pullout, while a third minister resigned.
Sharon wants to remove Israeli soldiers and settlers from Gaza by the end of 2005. Labor supports the plan, although, unlike Sharon, it also favors a withdrawal from most of the West Bank as well.
Peres said Tuesday that his party had not been asked to begin formal talks about joining the government. But he signaled that when the question comes, the answer would be positive.
“The Labor Party has only one consideration — what will promote peace, what will hasten the evacuation of the Gaza Strip,” Peres said.
Although Labor is not part of the government, it has helped Sharon in recent weeks by abstaining from no-confidence votes in parliament, providing a “safety net” that prevented his opponents from getting the majority needed to topple him.
Dalia Itzik, the leader of the Labor caucus in parliament, said Wednesday that Sharon does not appear to be in a rush to invite the party into the government.
“It is very comfortable for him at the moment with us providing him with a security net,” she told Army Radio.
She said Labor would demand a change in economic policy and certain portfolios — although she refused to elaborate — if negotiations open.
Labor’s demands could delay their entry into the government. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon’s biggest rival, has promoted a series of free-market reforms during his tenure and may resist efforts to court Labor.
Some Labor lawmakers are also wary of joining the government. Sharon and Labor teamed up during Sharon’s first term as premier from 2001 to 2003, but the government broke apart over the issue of funding settlements. Instead, these Labor lawmakers would rather topple the government and force new elections.
However, Peres, the Labor elder statesman at age 80 and Nobel Peace laureate, appears intent on guiding his party back into the coalition.
Corruption case dropped
Attorney General Meni Mazuz’s decision to drop the corruption case reinforced Sharon’s shaky hold on power. Had Mazuz decided to indict Sharon, the premier would probably have been forced to step down, at least temporarily.
At the center of the case were suspicions that Israeli businessman David Appel paid Sharon’s son Gilad hundreds of thousands of dollars to help push through a real estate deal in Greece in 1999. At the time, Sharon was foreign minister.
In the end, the project failed. Mazuz also closed the case against Gilad Sharon.
Appel has been indicted for allegedly paying bribes, but under Israeli law, prosecutors must prove that the recipient of a bribe was aware of the improper payments. Sharon denied wrongdoing.