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Initial talks between Likud and Shas progressed last night, in contrast to Shas' low expectations of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's willingness to include it in the governing coalition.

At the end of an hours-long meeting, Shas negotiators reported that the Likud team promised them that anti-religious legislation initiated during the Shinui era would not move forward, particularly the legitimization of common-law couples. Shas raised a series of budget demands aimed at aid for the disadvantaged, and Shas sources reported progress on that front as well.

Shas chair Eli Yishai met yesterday with Sharon and was told negotiations would be short and that Shas would have to decide if it was joining the coalition within two days, as Sharon plans to present his new government to the Knesset on Monday.

The 45-minute meeting was positive, and Sharon made it clear he is interested in Shas joining the government. Yishai said Shas would only join if treatment of the underprivileged improved substantially.

Labor plans to demand influential portfolios including education, interior, social affairs and national infrastructures. Sharon associates note he is leaning toward keeping the Interior Ministry in Likud hands. Labor will oppose Shas joining the coalition if it continues its sweeping opposition to the disengagement plan.

In yesterday's meeting with Yishai, Sharon emphasized that since Arafat's death, a new situation regarding disengagement had been created. Yishai replied that the rabbi's ruling was according to Jewish law and its validity hadn't changed. Sharon's people believe it will be possible to reach understandings with Shas that will satisfy Labor.