Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won agreement from veteran opposition leader Shimon Peres yesterday to try to forge a unity government that could push through a plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip.

In a warning to rebels in his right-wing Likud party, Mr Sharon threatened to call early elections if they did not back his efforts to broaden the government and ensure the withdrawal.

Mr Sharon, sapped by the departure of former far-right allies furious at the Gaza plan, invited Mr Peres and his centre-left Labour party to look at forming a coalition that could remove Jewish settlers from the occupied territory.

"We will enter negotiations," Mr Peres told Labour parliamentarians after speaking to Mr Sharon. "We must leave Gaza, we must take down the settlements."

Israel's oldest political warhorses, friends for decades despite their rivalry, met at breakfast to discuss forming a coalition. Mr Peres said further negotiations still depended on winning party acceptance in a ballot today.

Mr Sharon's initiative for unilateral "disengagement" from conflict with the Palestinians means abandoning all 21 Gaza settlements and four of 120 in the West Bank by late next year. Both territories were captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Israel's cabinet approved the withdrawal project after Mr Sharon fired two far-right ministers, but that cost the former general the majority in parliament he will need next year if he is to push through the phases of the US-backed plan.

In an indication of how vulnerable Mr Sharon has become, the opposition tied his ruling coalition in a no-confidence motion on the government economic policy yesterday.

Mr Sharon told Likud party members, suspicious of efforts to woo Mr Peres, that he would have to bring in Labour without sufficient backing from the current coalition.

"If you don't want either, then we have to go to elections," he said. "There will be no choice."

As the price for joining a coalition, Mr Peres, an 80-year-old Nobel peace laureate, has demanded a faster pull-out and also wants talks with the Palestinians - who fear they will get Gaza only at the cost of a stronger Israeli grip on the West Bank.

Insiders said another obstacle was that Peres appeared to want to return to the foreign ministry in a new coalition, but sacking Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom could strengthen opposition to 76-year-old Sharon within his Likud party.

Anger at the possibility that Labour could join the government is already bubbling vigorously in Likud, many of whose members are against giving up any territory and say Mr Sharon's pull-out plan would "reward Palestinian terror".

Most Israelis would like to part with Gaza, where 7,500 settlers live in heavily guarded enclaves among 1.3 million Palestinians - but the far-right fiercely opposes it. Labour and Likud formed a shaky pact in Sharon's first term from 2001-2003, but it fell apart in a row over funding for Jewish settlements.

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