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Gamble may yield a rightist Israel bloc

JERUSALEM -- A waiting-game gamble by a poker-faced Ehud Barak could earn Israel's incoming prime minister a new government that may be both stable in size and rightist in leaning, politicians and analysts said Wednesday.

Weeks of wrangling, in which Barak came under fire for a sphinx-like silence as parties squabbled and resisted joining his coalition, reached an apparent turning point on Tuesday with the resignation of a political kingpin at the heart of the disputes.The surprise departure of Rabbi Aryeh Deri from chairmanship of the Shas party set the stage for Barak to invite the powerful ultra-Orthodox Jewish faction to join his government and bolster renewed peace overtures to Israel's Arab neighbors.

"Following Aryeh Deri's reshuffling of the deck, Barak has received much better cards," said Israel's Army Radio. "In fact he got a near-perfect hand."

Were Shas to join the government, United Torah Judaism and other religious lawmakers were seen likely to follow suit, broadening the coalition for stability, at the same time shifting it rightward from its left-center Labor base.

The religious parties, even the relatively moderate Shas, oppose leftist calls to remove Jewish settlements under future peace treaties, and urge that brakes of caution be applied to Labor's traditional stance of offering to cede land for peace.

"We are today on the threshold of 77 members in parliament," said Binyamin Ben-Eliezer of Barak's Labor-led One Israel bloc. "The entry of Shas is likely also to ease the entry of UTJ." It would be the largest coalition in years in the 120-seat Knesset.

But Barak would need to pay a stiff ideological price for the backing of the mostly right-wing parties, commentators said.

"This government will be much more right-wing than one would have thought in the first two weeks after the election," said commentator Shimon Shiffer.