Sharon Seeks Unity Government To Calm World Fears

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon met his defeated rival, Ehud Barak, on Friday to discuss the possibility of forming a national unity government despite their differences over negotiations with the Palestinians.

Analysts said Friday the establishment of a unity government may have a "calming effect" on the international community, which fears Sharon's hawkish reputation could ignite trouble in the region.

According to a brief statement, Barak updated Sharon on diplomatic and security matters. Their two-hour meeting also prepared for an "orderly transfer of power."

Sharon repeated an offer for Barak to become defense minister, should his Labor Party join a coalition government, Israel radio reported.

After the meeting, Barak and senior Labor party member Shimon Peres said coalition negotiations would continue. Both men are said to favor a unity government option.

Sharon has reportedly offered the Labor party a choice of two of the three top cabinet posts - defense, finance and foreign affairs.

Sharon has 45 days to form a government comprising at least 61 out of 120 Knesset members. His own Likud Party has only 19 seats in the legislature while Barak's One Israel faction - comprising Labor and two small allies - has 26.

Sharon predicted he would form a government by the end of next week, whether or not Labor joins him.

If Labor stays out, he will have to put together a more right-wing coalition, made up of a host of smaller parties, said Professor Shmuel Sandler, head of Political Science at Bar Ilan University.

For the watching world, a unity government would have a more "calming affect" - especially if Peres is made foreign minister, Sandler said in an interview Friday. He noted, too, that Sharon had pledged during the campaign to form a unity government, and doing so would mean he "stands on his promises."

Barak threw Labor into disarray with his election night announcement that he was quitting as party leader and leaving politics for awhile. Just one day later, however, he reversed tack and said he would not bow out completely.

Offering Barak the defense portfolio was "very wise" on Sharon's part, said Political Science professor Yaron Ezrahi, of the Hebrew University. Despite Barak's inability to control a nearly five-month violent uprising, Ezrahi said, there was "no better candidate for that job."

Sharon also wants to "calm international public opinion" and overcome his reputation of being reckless, Ezrahi added.

As far as negotiations with the Palestinians are concerned, a Likud-Labor union would lead to "more continuity" in the diplomatic process, said Sandler.

Sharon's challenge will be not to resume negotiations while violence is continuing, a pledge he reiterated on Thursday.

Sharon and the Labor Party leaders have considerably different views on negotiations with the Palestinians. When it comes to the peace process, the two factions might have to part ways - but that could be a long time from now.

"The peace process has been basically corrupted," Ezrahi said. "It collapsed because of the intifada [Palestinian uprising] and failure to reach an agreement before elections. To restore the peace process will take several months at least."

In the meantime, he said, a unity government could survive as long as there was no real movement in peace talks. In any case, he argued, negotiations would move "very slowly" because the Palestinian Authority has very little control over ordinary Palestinians in the street.

Violent clashes erupted again Friday on the outskirts of PA-controlled Ramallah after a night of heavy shooting at the nearby Jewish settlement of Psagot. There were also several shooting attacks on Israeli army outposts in the Gaza Strip.

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