Prime Minister Ariel Sharon invited the left-leaning Labor Party yesterday to enter talks on joining his conservative governing coalition, a move meant to ensure that he can move...

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JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon invited the left-leaning Labor Party yesterday to enter talks on joining his conservative governing coalition, a move meant to ensure that he can move ahead with his plan to relinquish the Gaza Strip.

The 76-year-old Likud leader made the offer in a telephone call to the head of Labor, Shimon Peres, 81. The two men, whose acquaintance dates to the earliest days of Israeli statehood, have maintained a close personal friendship despite decades-old ideological differences.

Sharon approached Peres within hours of securing the blessing of his party’s policy-making body, the Central Committee, to open negotiations with Labor and two smaller religious political parties. The same Likud body had voted this year to ban such negotiations.

A Likud-Labor coalition would amount to a marriage of some of the country’s most fervent hawks with its leading doves. But traditional Israeli political fault lines have been blurred by Sharon’s plan to withdraw the 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, together with four smaller ones in the northern West Bank. Labor has endorsed the initiative, but it is furiously opposed by many in the prime minister’s own party.

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Despite their opposing political views, the two parties have joined forces before. Peres served as Foreign Minister when Labor was part of Sharon’s governing coalition during 2001 and 2002.

News reports have said that if the alliance is sealed, Peres probably will serve as deputy prime minister and perhaps be given high-level responsibilities in connection with the Gaza pullout.

Peres has said that although Labor disagrees with many of Sharon’s policies, including his budget plan, it considers the Gaza withdrawal a top priority.

“I think the people expect movement in the direction of peace, and that we pull out of Gaza and the northern West Bank, so that mothers (of soldiers) can breathe a sigh of relief,” Peres told Israel Radio.

“There are difficulties ahead — so what?” he said.

The notion of a Sharon-Peres partnership is provoking grumbling in the ranks of both their parties. Younger rivals in Labor see Peres as trying to prolong his grip on party leadership, whereas Sharon’s right-wing foes are embittered by what they consider his betrayal of the settlement movement he long nurtured.

The prime minister’s political base has eroded steadily since he unveiled his Gaza plan last year, even though polls consistently indicate a withdrawal has wide public support. Sharon’s coalition shrank to a mere 40 seats in the 120-member Knesset last week when his main ally, the secular-rights party Shinui, deserted the coalition in a dispute over money earmarked for the ultra-Orthodox community.

The Palestinian political scene, meanwhile, was roiled by a new flurry of reports over the on-again off-again candidacy of jailed Palestinian presidential aspirant Marwan Barghouti.

Barghouti, 45, a firebrand militia leader serving five life terms in Israeli prison, had at first announced he would stay out of the race to replace Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died Nov. 11, and then reversed himself two weeks ago.

Barghouti’s candidacy prompted criticism even from his supporters, who said it would split his Fatah movement in advance of the Jan. 9 elections. Fatah has given its backing to former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, 69, a moderate figure who is well regarded by both Israel and the United States.

Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, and his campaign manager Ahmed Ghneim visited Barghouti at his prison in southern Israel, giving rise to news reports that the charismatic Barghouti had finally decided to drop out of the race.

But Ghneim, contacted by telephone, said: “There is no change.”

Although violence in the West Bank and Gaza fell after Arafat’s death, scattered confrontations continued to flare.

Israeli soldiers fatally shot a 7-year-old girl in the Khan Younis refugee camp in southern Gaza yesterday. The army said troops were responding to mortar fire from the camp which injured four Israelis, one of them a child, in the neighboring Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim.