- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 1, 2004

TEL AVIV — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took a perilous step toward early elections yesterday, firing Cabinet ministers from the secular Shinui Party after members of the junior coalition partner voted against the government on a budget bill.

Mr. Sharon now must seek to negotiate a new coalition with the opposition Labor Party or else order new elections — a step that would postpone indefinitely his plan to withdraw Israeli troops and settlements from the Gaza Strip.

Shinui, angry over $66 million in pork-barrel spending promised by Mr. Sharon to buy support from a religious party, joined the opposition to defeat the government budget bill by a 69-43 vote on a first reading.

As if pondering a political black hole, the prime minister stared blankly from his seat at the center of the parliament as his coalition unraveled, with the Shinui lawmakers voting one by one against the budget.

“The Likud has violated every agreement with us, and now they want to go and give the money to the ultra-Orthodox,” said Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, explaining Shinui’s vote. “We promised our constituency that we’d fight ultra-Orthodox extortion, and we’re continuing this struggle.”

Mr. Sharon’s coalition initially controlled 68 of the 120 parliament seats after his landslide election victory in January 2003, but the 40 lawmakers from Mr. Sharon’s Likud Party now stand alone. Mr. Sharon had dismissed another coalition partner that opposed the Gaza pullout plan.

Observers said Mr. Sharon had created the latest crisis with Shinui in order to justify the formation of a new unity government with Labor that would enjoy broader support for the disengagement plan.

Left with a minority in parliament even before yesterday, Mr. Sharon had courted Labor to broaden the coalition in August but was rebuffed by the Likud central committee. This time, Mr. Sharon is gambling that his party will agree to a coalition with Labor rather than face early elections.

“It’s very obvious that he is using almost an artificial crisis to achieve what he wanted,” said Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at Hebrew University. “He might be making a mistake. We all know that when Sharon plays these tricks, he’s not always successful.”

Before opening talks with Labor, Mr. Sharon must return to the central committee of his party, which is bitterly divided over the Gaza evacuation.

However, backers of a coalition with Labor will be emboldened by an opinion poll showing nearly three of four Israelis oppose what would be the third election in about four years.

“This is not a joyous evening,” said Cabinet minister Tzipi Livni, a Likud member. “The coalition needs to include those who can be a partner on economic issues and the disengagement. Of course the ultra-Orthodox parties, or part of them, and Labor.”

United Torah Judaism, the ultra-Orthodox party that secured the budget funds that triggered the crisis with Shinui, is expected to join the coalition. The participation of Shas, a second ultra-Orthodox party, is not certain because of its opposition to the disengagement plan.

Though Labor Party Chairman Shimon Peres is eager to join a unity government with Likud, political rivals such as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, also of the Labor Party, may throw up obstacles unless they receive a promise of Cabinet seats. Others oppose joining a Likud government over budget issues.

But some members of Labor said last night that they won’t allow the disengagement plan to fall over economic differences with Likud.

“This is a bad budget,” said Haim Ramon, a senior Labor Party lawmaker. “But if I have to choose between the disengagement and a bad budget, I will choose the disengagement.”

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