Labour likely to press Kadima for negotiation with Palestinians

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 March, 2006, 12:00am

The dovish Israeli Labour Party's emergence from this week's election as the likely key coalition partner of acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima party will boost chances for negotiations with the Palestinians and slow Mr Olmert's move towards unilateral steps in the occupied West Bank, analysts said yesterday.

During its campaign, Labour placed far greater emphasis on negotiations with moderate Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas than on Mr Olmert's idea of a unilateral withdrawal, saying it wanted to build up the strength of moderate Palestinians.

'I believe in negotiations. An Israeli leader who doesn't try negotiations before he starts unilateral action is irresponsible,' said Labour leader Amir Peretz.

'Even if there's only a crack for negotiations, you have to widen it, and I am an expert in widening cracks to open doors. That's my profession and I intend to exploit it,' the former union leader added.

By contrast, Kadima's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, described Mr Abbas as 'irrelevant' after Hamas' victory in January's legislative polls.

But Mr Olmert softened the tone during his victory speech on Tuesday, saying Israel wanted to give diplomacy a try before taking unilateral action. While Mr Olmert has spoken of gaining US backing for annexation of the large West Bank settlements, Mr Peretz has distanced himself from imposing Israeli sovereignty there, saying any Israeli disengagement would be a security matter, not a political one.

David Kimche, head of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, said Labour's tally of 20 Knesset seats compared with Kadima's 28 'means Labour will be able to insist on going for negotiations'.

'There will very likely be some form of unofficial contacts with the new Palestinian government and Hamas, despite the official view ruling out such contacts,' said Mr Kimche, former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

'The question will be, 'Will Hamas prove sufficiently willing and able [to negotiate] that Israel will want to reach agreement?''

Mr Kimche pointed to public opinion polls indicating that the majority of Israelis preferred negotiations to unilateral steps.

In the view of Sam Lehman-Wilzig, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, Labour will push for negotiations, but if they don't bear fruit, the two parties will go for a unilateral pullback.