Peres Denies Discussing Possibility of Labor Joining Coalition

Labor Party chairman Shimon Peres denied Sunday that he had discussed the possibility of his party's joining the coalition during a covert meeting with an aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last week, Army Radio reported.

Reports that Peres and Labor MK Haim Ramon met with Uri Shani to discuss the conditions necessary for Labor to join the government sparked angry reactions among opposition members Sunday.

Meanwhile, the One Nation party's central committee was meeting Sunday morning to vote on merging with the Labor Party, after Labor voted last week to allow Amir Peretz's party to join. The merger with One Nation is expected to win Labor votes from members of the Histadrut labor federation, as Peretz is Histadrut chairman.

Peretz told Israel Radio on Sunday he opposes a unity coalition, which he said One Nation would not join. At the same time, he said he does not opposed the meeting, saying it could encourage ministers to support the disengagement plan.

Labor MK Yuli Tamir and Yahad MK Zehava Gal-On demonstrated outside the prime minister's office Sunday, saying that Peres was embarrassing the 150,000 protestors who took part in a May 15 rally in support of the withdrawal of troops from Gaza.

Labor MK Avraham Burg also attacked Peres. Speaking to Army Radio, he said, "Peres is not fit to lead the opposition in Israel."

Labor faction chairman Dalia Itzik said that before entering talks with the Likud party, Labor should adhere to its resolution to wait until Attorney General Menachem Mazuz decides whether to indict Sharon for allegedly accepting bribes in the Greek island and Cyril Kern affairs.

"The talks have harmed the party and the opposition," Labor MK Ophir Pines-Paz told Army Radio on Sunday.

Sharon's efforts to win cabinet approval for a revised disengagement plan would likely be bolstered by Labor's joining the government. An earlier version of the plan, which calls for Israel to unilaterally evacuate all settlements in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, was soundly rejected in a May 2 referendum of Likud members.

Meanwhile, Minister Natan Sharansky is working with the leader of the rightist National Union party, Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman, to form a new right-wing Russian party.

Lieberman blasted the Likud, saying it had become "quick-sand" and was no longer able to change the political and security situation.