- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 30, 2002

TEL AVIV Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's deeply divided coalition government appeared to be on its last legs as its junior partner, the once-powerful Labor Party, threatened to vote against the national budget in parliament today.
In Ramallah, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat won a political battle when the legislature gave its approval for his new Cabinet.
Labor members say the 2003 budget favors West Bank and Gaza Strip settlers over underprivileged and impoverished Israelis.
The dispute gives the 66-year-old Labor leader, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, an opportunity to outmaneuver the two main challengers to his status as party chairman and electoral front-runner against Mr. Sharon or the dominant Likud Party's charismatic vote-getter, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The rival Laborites are Haim Ramon, formerly head of the powerful Histadrut trade union federation, and Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna both proponents of territorial concessions to the Palestinians.
Unlike the recriminations in Israel's legislature, the Palestinians yesterday demonstrated unity and single-mindedness by endorsing Mr. Arafat's 19-member Cabinet by a 56-18 vote.
Low-key dissent was expressed, however.
While the influential Fatah organization welcomed the new ministerial unit, Hanan Ashrawi, the internationally known spokeswoman for the Palestinian cause, rejected it as incompetent.
Other critics charged that many former ministers tainted by charges of corruption and inefficiency were returned to office. Mr. Arafat had pledged that the new Cabinet would overhaul his Palestinian Authority, but it looked short of committed reformers and was packed mostly with old faces. The major newcomer is Hani el-Hassan, one of Mr. Arafat's top PLO lieutenants who supported his plan to reach an agreement with Israel a decade ago.
Mr. el-Hassan was given the pivotal post of minister of the interior, which includes security.
Elsewhere, a Palestinian made his way into a Jewish settlement in the West Bank late last night and opened fire, injuring five persons before being shot and killed.
Settler spokesman Yehoshua Mor-Yosef said the gunman was killed shortly after entering the heavily guarded settlement of Hermesh near the Palestinian town of Jenin.
Mr. Sharon has vowed to eject Labor from his 19-month-old coalition if it voted against the budget, a move that would leave him without a parliamentary majority and could lead him to declare new elections for January.
The Labor Party, with Mr. Ben-Eliezer at its helm, would head the parliamentary opposition, disputing Mr. Sharon's domestic and foreign policy, criticizing the performance of his administration and demanding a clearly defined program for negotiations, peace and coexistence with the Palestinians.
The ultimate goal would be to marshall as much public support as possible on the assumption that an early national election will be inevitable it could take place within the next 60 to 90 days and that Labor will outpoll the Likud Party's choice and catapult Mr. Ben-Eliezer to the premiership.
The Labor Party is capitalizing on its historical reputation as a bastion of political realism against the purportedly impossible dreams of center-right and conservative elements that advocate Israeli domination from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.
However, analysts believe Mr. Ben-Eliezer may risk losing the next elections if he is perceived as deserting a so-called national unity government in the face of a relentless campaign of terrorism waged by Palestinian extremists.
Mr. Ben-Eliezer may find himself pitted against Mr. Netanyahu, who has been outpolling Mr. Sharon by 46 percent to 42 percent of Likud voters. Mr. Netanyahu is 13 years younger than Mr. Ben-Eliezer, articulate and much more adept at mobilizing the mass media, especially television, to his advantage.
A Labor pullout from the coalition also may be upstaged by a U.S. military strike against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime, which could boost Mr. Sharon's national prestige.
Mr. Sharon is likely to emerge as a staunch ally of President Bush. In the aftermath of a U.S. victory, the Middle East may undergo far-reaching changes: an end to Iraq's support of Palestinian terrorism and a new impetus toward democratization of the Arab world developments that could transform Mr. Sharon from an advocate of military resistance against hostile neighbors to a proponent of accommodation and regional cooperation.

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