JERUSALEM — The religious Shas party agreed Sunday to join a coalition led by Israel's prime minister-designate, Ehud Olmert, and his centrist Kadima movement, apparently assuring Olmert a parliamentary majority.
The deal to bring Shas into the new government came after weeks of coalition haggling and was approved late Sunday by a panel of party elders. Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party, is made up heavily of Sephardic Jews, those whose families have roots in the Middle East, North Africa, Spain and Portugal, rather than elsewhere in Europe.
The proposed Kadima-led government is still taking shape, with two other parties already on board and negotiations underway with at least one more.
Kadima's main governing partner is the left-leaning Labor Party, which finished second in the March 28 elections. Kadima captured 29 of 120 seats in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, a weaker-than-expected showing that forced Olmert to reach out to a wide array of parties to assemble a majority government.
Labor won 19 seats. Also joining was the Pensioners Party, which surprised everyone by winning seven seats.
Also Sunday, Labor's leader, Amir Peretz, overcame a challenge within his party over his plan to designate who will fill the seven Cabinet spots allocated to Labor under the agreement with Kadima.
Peretz, who secured the high-profile defense minister's job despite his relative lack of experience in military affairs, narrowly won a party vote that authorized him to name Labor's ministers. Some senior party members who were not on Peretz's list had sought to have a Labor committee choose.
Labor agreed to join last week after endorsing Olmert's plan to set permanent borders -- unilaterally, if Israel deems there is no hope for negotiations with the Palestinians. The plan would involve evacuating a number of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a move certain to stoke dissent within Israeli society, if last summer's pullout from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank is any indication.
Shas, a working-class party with 12 seats whose supporters tend to be hawkish on security matters but liberal on welfare spending, won promises in its talks with Kadima to stave off cuts in benefits while avoiding taking a stand on the withdrawal plan, according to Israeli media reports. Instead, the party would leave a decision on evacuations until later, subject to a ruling by its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the reports said.
Kadima was in talks with a second religious party, United Torah Judaism. Avigdor Lieberman, who leads a rightist party called Yisrael Beiteinu, or Israel Our Home, said Sunday that he remained open to coalition talks with Olmert. There was also speculation that dovish Meretz-Yahad might join if Lieberman's party was ruled out.
Olmert is expected to formally present his proposed government this week.