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Friday, August 17, 2001, updated at 08:44(GMT+8)

Israel's Center Party to Join Coalition Government

Israel's five-seat Center Party accepted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's invitation Thursday to join the coalition government, Israel Radio reported.

Party chief Dan Meridor told Sharon of the decision when they met in Tel Aviv to discuss the issue and the exact role Meridor would play.

According to the radio, the government will not establish a new portfolio and Meridor will serve as a minister without portfolio.

Meridor will head the National Security Council and join Sharon's inner security cabinet, which also includes Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer from the leading Labor Party.

Meridor in the past rejected Sharon's invitation to bring the Center Party into the government as he did not think he was offered a senior position.

Meridor's fellow Party member, former health minister Roni Milo, is expected to replace Tzip Livni from Sharon's Likud faction as regional cooperation minister.

Meridor's current position as chairman of the influential Knesset (parliament) Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee will stay with the party and will be transferred to David Magen, a member of Knesset.

Should the Labor Party decide to quit the unity government, Meridor and Milo would then be given more prominent portfolios.

Analysts said that Meridor's joining of government would help balance out a recent alliance between Peres and Ben Eliezer, and would free Sharon's hand in acting to quell Palestinian uprising.

Both Peres and Ben Eliezer insist that there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They have been, instead, urging for ceasefire negotiations with the Palestinians.

Sharon's move was also viewed as a gambit to block former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from making a comeback.

Meridor, a former "Likud prince," left the right-wing party over disagreements with Netanyahu. There's speculation that Meridor, Milo and Magen could return to the Likud party with their entry into the government.

In another development, Amir Peretz, chairman of Histadrut or the General Federation of Labor, said earlier Thursday that his two-seat Am Ehad (or One Nation) faction would pull out of the government if the security situation continues to supersede other social problems including unemployment.

Meanwhile, opposition leader Yossi Sarid, who heads the leftist Meretz Party, protested the move to expand the government, saying that the Center Party's accession would turn the coalition into a swollen government with more than 40 ministers and deputy ministers.

Sharon took office in early March heading a government of 26 ministers, the ever largest in Israel's 53-year-old history.

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Israel's five-seat Center Party accepted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's invitation Thursday to join the coalition government, Israel Radio reported.

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