Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will settle accounts with any minister or MK who fails to help persuade the Likud Central Committee to approve Labor's entry into the government, while those who do help him will be rewarded, the premier's associates warned yesterday.

Sharon wants to form a government with Labor and the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ). The central committee, which vetoed Labor's entry into the government this summer, is due to vote Thursday on whether to rescind its veto or let it stand.

"There are ministers who are working and ministers who aren't," said one Sharon associate. "Those who work harder and bring along their supporters in the central committee will be rewarded accordingly."

One minister who has yet to announce his position for the move is Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu will meet with Sharon today to demand that all new coalition members be required to support his economic policy.

If the committee approves Labor's entry, Sharon plans to open formal coalition negotiations with Labor, Shas and UTJ on Friday. If it does not, he may be forced to call new elections.

Sharon is working energetically to secure a majority in Thursday's vote. Yesterday, he received a boost when 40 Likud mayors sent a letter of support for bringing in Labor, and in the upcoming days, he plans to meet with several key Likud activists.

But much of his effort is being aimed at convincing Likud MKs that new elections would be disastrous.

"I am not afraid of new elections, and I intend to run in the coming elections and to win, just as I won the five internal races that the Likud has held since 1999," he told faction members in the Knesset yesterday. "I know that those who want elections now want them because they think they can topple me. It won't happen. I'm not afraid. The one who is likely to be hurt by early elections is the Likud itself," which is expected to lose some of the 40 Knesset seats it now has.

Therefore, he said, anyone who cares about the Likud must support bringing Labor into the government.

Sharon reiterated this message in an address to the Globes Business Conference yesterday, adding that elections would cost much more than any agreements made to obtain the support of new coalition partners.

"Next year will be a year in which we will be making a serious mistake if we miss the opportunities that will be created," he told the conference. "So we must stop dealing with petty political issues... Do you understand the meaning of embarking on an election year now? Do you know the meaning of having cabinet ministers busy with elections instead of implementing reforms? Does anyone see us leaving Gaza - which I see as one of the most important things - in an election year? Or implementing the Dovrat reforms [of the education system], or other reforms?"

But Likud members who oppose the disengagement, undeterred by his threats, are mobilizing to defeat Sharon in the central committee. They plan to submit an alternative resolution calling for a government with Shas, UTJ and the National Religious Party, but without Labor.

Sharon also faces a potential problem with Shas. He has been actively courting the party with the belief that its presence in the government would make it easier for the Likud Central Committee to swallow a coalition agreement with Labor. But Shas Chairman Eli Yishai told Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz yesterday that contrary to various media reports, the party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is not eager to enter the government.

Mofaz met with Yishai to try to convince him that in light of the changes engendered by Yasser Arafat's death, Shas should join the government. The party opposes a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, but with Arafat gone, it might be possible to implement the disengagement in coordination with the Palestinians, Mofaz argued.

Yishai responded that for now, Yosef's ruling against the disengagement remains in force, but he would report to the party's spiritual patron on his talks with Mofaz. His associates added that Yosef might meet with Mofaz himself in the coming weeks to hear the minister's assessment of the new situation directly.

Aside from the disengagement, Shas also wants major changes in the 2005 budget, which could also prove to be a sticking point in coalition negotiations. Shas is adamantly opposed to Netanyahu's economic policy. But in his speech to the Globes Business Conference, Sharon insisted his government "will work determinedly in 2005 to implement all the reforms decided upon recently" - which include several major reforms in the economic sphere.

Moreover, Shas is suspicious of Sharon's intentions in general: It fears that once the Likud Central Committee has approved a coalition with Labor, as is expected, Sharon will have no further use for Shas and leave the party outside the government.

Nevertheless, at the urging of Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Yishai agreed to withdraw a no-confidence motion that the Knesset was supposed to have voted on yesterday. Shas said that this was a personal gesture to Shalom, whom it believes sincerely wants the party in the government. However, Shas also had no real expectations that the motion, which cited the proposed 2005 budget as the reason for its lack of confidence in the government, would pass: Labor, which is hoping to join the government, would almost certainly not have supported it, nor would Yahad, which has promised the government a safety net on confidence motions as long as it moves forward with the disengagement. Shinui was also considered unlikely to support it, due to its detestation of Shas.