With Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's coalition in turmoil at a crucial juncture in the peace process with the Palestinians, his foreign minister called Thursday for the creation of a national unity government.
"We must have the courage and the strength to assume our responsibilities by achieving national unity to make peace and preserve our national interests in the face of Palestinian demands," David Levy told Israeli public radio.
Levy, who also served under former right-wing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the Palestinians were seeking "territorial concessions that harm our national, political and security interests."
Barak is scrambling to keep his 11-month-old government afloat after the key ultra-Orthodox Jewish party Shas announced it would walk out in a dispute over funding for its bankrupt religious schools network.
Shas and two other right-wing coalition partners -- the National Religious Party and Israel B'Aliya -- sided with the opposition last week during a parliamentary vote for early elections.
Environment Minister Dalia Itzik said the idea of a national unity government was a possibility if Barak failed to cut a deal with Shas, the second largest party in government with 17 MPs and four ministers.
But Agriculture Minister Haim Oron, of the left-wing Meretz party, said Levy's comments did not reflect Barak's point of view.
An opinion poll published in the Jerusalem Post this week found that 57.6 percent of Israelis would support a national unity government including Barak's One Israel and the right-wing Likud opposition.
Likud chairman Ariel Sharon however has ruled out joining such a government, instead saying he was ready for early elections.
Israeli media reports said Barak's One Israel bloc was preparing a "package deal" to win over Shas including the transfer of the responsibility for the schools network from Education Minister Yossi Sarid, the party's bete noire.
But Israeli radio said negotiations had stumbled over its demands for the legalization of ultra-Orthodox pirate radio station.
Political commentators have deplored Barak's "appeasement" of Shas, with some suggesting its political leader Eli Yishai might as well be sitting in the prime minister's chair.
"All in all this is political commerce of the worst kind, carried out in surrender to bullying, that will seriously harm the relatively clean image of the prime minister," wrote the Maariv newspaper's Shalom Yerushalmi.
Shas's departure would leave Barak with a minority government just as a new round of negotiations is underway in Washington aimed at forging a final peace deal by a September deadline.
However talks have stalled ahead of a summit between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and US President Bill Clinton because of a dispute over a further Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the release of Palestinian prisoners -- OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AFP)
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