- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 26, 2005

JERUSALEM — A powerful Israeli opposition leader reached an agreement with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon late yesterday to support the state budget, removing the last major legislative hurdle to Mr. Sharon’s plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip this summer.

The support from the opposition Shinui Party would ensure Mr. Sharon a majority for his budget, which he needs to pass by Thursday to avoid the collapse of his government.

If the budget fails to pass, parliament would automatically be dissolved and new elections would have to be held within three months, delaying and possibly derailing the planned Gaza withdrawal.

A majority in parliament has repeatedly supported the Gaza pullout. But Mr. Sharon’s budget faced the combined opposition of rebel lawmakers within his own badly riven Likud party which is opposed to the planned Gaza withdrawal and other legislators who do not like the budget for fiscal reasons.

But Mr. Sharon and Joseph Lapid, leader of the Shinui Party, reached an agreement late yesterday, sealing the opposition party’s support for the budget.

“We did it mainly because we didn’t want to halt the peace process and disengagement,” Mr. Lapid said.

Sharon spokesman Assaf Shariv confirmed the agreement, but was cautious about declaring the plan to withdraw from all of Gaza and four settlements in the West Bank a done deal.

“In politics you never know what can happen,” he said.

One-third of Mr. Sharon’s 40-member Likud faction has broken with him over his “disengagement” plan and refused to back him on the budget. On Wednesday, he rebuffed their tit-for-tat offer to vote for the spending plan if he would support a national referendum on the withdrawal, which he has repeatedly rejected as a delaying tactic.

Many Israeli political commentators believed Mr. Sharon would get his budget approved, but not before considerable last-minute political horse-trading. “No one has an interest in going to elections,” said Yoram Gabbay, a former senior Finance Ministry official.

According to Mr. Lapid, Mr. Sharon agreed at their meeting last night to put $160 million from the budget at Shinui’s disposal for distribution to its pet causes, including universities, science, arts and conservation. In exchange, Shinui, which has 15 seats in the 120-member Knesset, would back the spending plan.

In the months Mr. Sharon has been trying to marshal majority backing for the spending plan, he has lobbied unlikely political allies who object to the austerity budget on various grounds.

The fiercely secular Shinui pulled out of the government last year after Mr. Sharon yielded to the budgetary demands of another religious party.

Shinui was considered a weak link in the budget’s opposition because it strongly supports the pullout.

“There is nothing we want more,” Shinui lawmaker Ehud Rassabi said last week.

Shinui has said its price for supporting the government is winning government backing for civil marriage, a rollback of the payout to the religious party or formation of a Likud-Labor-Shinui coalition government. Yesterday, it crawled back from those conditions and accepted a budgetary payout.

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