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A struggling Sharon starts Labor talks on Gaza pullout

JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon embarked yesterday on a journey to rescue his shaky government and his plans to pull out of the Gaza Strip, opening talks with the moderate Labor Party.

The Gaza withdrawal, the centerpiece of Sharon's "unilateral disengagement" from the Palestinians, was such a turnabout for the longtime hawkish leader that he lost the backing of many of his constituents and found himself at the head of a minority government that could be brought down in the coming months.

To guarantee his political survival, Sharon approached Labor, which favors pulling out of Gaza even more quickly than Sharon does. Negotiating teams from the two traditional rivals sat down at a Tel Aviv hotel to start working on an agreement, but success was not assured, as both sides faced internal opposition alongside the usual jockeying for ministerial portfolios and policy guidelines.

Labor Party faction leader Dalia Itzik, who heads her party's negotiating team, said Labor could not be taken for granted. "We think this is a bad government, and we will join only if we influence the economic plan and if the disengagement from Gaza is implemented," she told Israel Radio.

Sharon hoped for success but admitted that "it's not an easy thing."

Sharon and Labor teamed up in Sharon's first government, but the partnership lasted less than two years. Labor pulled out in late 2003 over Sharon's insistence on increasing allocations for Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Now the situation appears to be different, with Sharon adopting a long-held Labor belief that Israel should pull out of Gaza. His plan calls for evacuation of four small West Bank settlements as well.

Many in Labor doubt Sharon's sincerity about removing settlements he helped establish and suspect he is using Labor simply to keep his own party rebels in line.

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