JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon renewed
efforts yesterday to expand his embattled coalition government,
declaring the current political deadlock untenable after his Gaza
pullout plan suffered an embarrassing blow in parliament.

Sharon dispatched Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to meet with the
spiritual leader of Shas, a religious opposition party that has so
far withheld support for the Gaza plan.

It was the first of many feelers Sharon is expected to put out
in the coming days as he tries to shore up his government, which
has lost its parliamentary majority due to opposition to the
pullout.

Also yesterday, an 11-year-old Palestinian girl was shot in the
chest and critically wounded by Israeli gunfire as she stood
outside a United Nations school in a southern Gaza refugee camp,
U.N. and Palestinian medical officials said. The army said its
troops had opened fire in the area after being attacked by
Palestinian mortar shells, and said it was investigating the
shooting.

Sharon wants to pull all Israeli troops and settlers out of Gaza
next year but faces growing opposition by his traditional hard-line
allies in parliament.

At Monday’s opening of its winter session, lawmakers
rejected Sharon’s state-of-the-nation policy speech, in which
he defended his Gaza plan. The vote was symbolic, but reflected the
significant opposition he faces. Roughly a quarter of lawmakers
from Sharon’s Likud Party voted against the speech.

Over the heckling of hard-line lawmakers, Sharon said he would
present the pullout plan for approval Oct. 25 and then would bring
a bill for compensating the 8,500 settlers to be evacuated.

Israeli officials and analysts said Monday’s vote would
force Sharon to court opposition parties or call early
parliamentary elections. The next elections are scheduled for
2006.

Sharon said yesterday he wants to avoid elections.

“The current political situation can’t continue, but
I will do everything to prevent early elections,” he said at
a meeting with Justice Minister Joseph Lapid.

Mofaz, a close confidant of Sharon, met yesterday with Rabbi
Ovadia Yosef, Shas’s spiritual leader, and other party
officials, in a bid to persuade the Orthodox party to support the
Gaza plan. The two sides did not reach an agreement, but talks are
expected to continue.

Political officials said Sharon would also hold meetings with
Labor, the main opposition party, and other religious parties.

Dalia Itzik, a senior Labor lawmaker, said the party’s 21
lawmakers will support Sharon when he brings the Gaza plan to a
vote. She also said the party would be willing to join the
government to avoid new elections.

“If we see that he won’t have a government without
us, we’ll help him,” she said in an interview.

Sharon’s options are limited. Likud has voted against
adding Labor to the government, while bringing in religious parties
would alienate the secular Shinui, now Sharon’s main
coalition partner.

Sharon plans to dismantle all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and
four small enclaves in the West Bank. After four years of fighting
with the Palestinians, Sharon says the plan will boost security and
rally international support.

The evacuation is to begin next summer and last about 12 weeks,
according to a government timetable, but Sharon’s government
might not survive that long.

Sharon said Israel still accepts the wider ranging U.S.-backed
“road map” peace plan, but the Palestinians have
scuttled it by failing to stop militants from attacking Israelis
and refusing to reform their administration. Palestinians charge
Israeli occupation and military operations are perpetuating the
violence.

Sharon left open the option of changing the pullout plan if
security deteriorates.

Sharon’s hard-line critics fear the Gaza plan is just the
beginning of a larger withdrawal from the West Bank. The deep
ideological disagreements are expected to dominate the new
parliamentary session.

Hanan Crystal, Israel Radio’s political commentator, said
Sharon will likely muster enough votes to push the disengagement
plan through parliament.

He estimated some 70 lawmakers in the 120-member parliament
support the plan.

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