Labor Party chooses ministers for new Sharon government

Thursday, December 23rd 2004, 8:08 pm

By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ The moderate Labor Party has chosen young lawmakers to serve as ministers in a new government under the leadership of Ariel Sharon, another step toward forming an alliance that will solidly back a planned Gaza withdrawal.

Members of the 2,188-strong Labor Party central committee voted Thursday for their favorites from a list of candidates to fill seven Cabinet seats. The eighth minister will be Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Labor leader Shimon Peres, expected to serve as Sharon's second vice premier.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops shot and killed three armed Palestinians in the town of Tulkarem, Palestinian officials said. The army confirmed killing one armed man and wounding a second.

In other elections Thursday, tens of thousands of Palestinians in 26 towns jammed polling places, casting ballots for council members in the first local elections in the West Bank since 1976. The race was seen as a dry run for a Jan. 9 election to replace Yasser Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority. Arafat died in a French hospital on Nov. 11.

The local election pitted the ruling Fatah faction against the Islamic Hamas group, which has gained popularity in four years of fighting with Israel. But local issues and clan loyalties blunted the rivalry.

Sharon has headed a shaky minority government since the summer, when his hard-line coalition splintered over opposition to his plan to pull out of all the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements next year.

Labor has long favored pulling out of much of the West Bank and all of Gaza in exchange for peace and is strongly in favor of Sharon's limited withdrawal.

In recent months, Labor has been shielding Sharon, its traditional rival, from being toppled by abstaining in parliamentary no-confidence motions.

Now Labor is poised to join Sharon's Likud-led government, along with a small ultra-Orthodox Jewish party. The new coalition will give Sharon a majority of 65 in the 120-member parliament.

Likud and Labor approved their partnership agreement earlier this week. On Thursday, Labor's central committee elected its ministers, choosing some of the youngest members to lead the team, topped by Ofir Pines-Paz, a parliamentary floor leader. Pines-Paz was expected to become either the interior or housing minister.

Likud and Labor agreed Peres would be vice premier in the new government. But Likud stalwart Ehud Olmert is already Sharon's vice premier, and Sharon and Peres are waiting for parliament to approve new legislation that will allow for two such deputies.

Israeli media reported the legislation was expected to be approved by mid-January. The new government will be sworn in immediately thereafter.

Sharon and Peres have joined forces in the past. Peres served as Sharon's foreign minister from 2001-02.

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