Sharon Re-evaluates His Options After Firing Four of His Ministers

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is playing coalition hardball.

A day after firing four Cabinet ministers from the fervently Orthodox Shas Party for failing to support the government’s emergency economic plan, Sharon said Tuesday he would not change his mind.

Sharon reportedly instructed officials in his office to break off all contact with Shas officials, including refusing to take their phone calls.

He also convened his political advisers to discuss the unfolding coalition crisis.

Sharon also fired deputy ministers from the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party who also voted against the plan.

Without Shas, which has 17 Knesset seats, and UTJ, which has five, Sharon’s coalition will shrink from 82 to 60 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Even so, Sharon’s government is not in immediate danger of collapse, because 61 votes are required to bring down a government in a no-confidence vote.

Just the same, Sharon may have to depend more than ever on his uneasy partnership with the Labor Party.

Sharon fired the four Shas ministers late Monday night after they helped defeat the government’s emergency budget plan in the Knesset because it would cut social welfare payments for large families.

The budget bill failed by a 47-44 vote, with one abstention. The bill called for cutting $2.7 billion from the budget and raising taxes to fund the increased defense spending necessitated by the intifada.

Sharon also fired five deputy ministers from Shas and the United Torah Judaism bloc after they, too, helped defeat the economic plan in the Knesset.

A fifth Shas minister who is not a legislator resigned.

The dismissals will take effect Wednesday evening unless a compromise is worked out before then.

Political observers are questioning how far Sharon can go in depending on Labor, which is suffering its own internal strains.

In a sign of those strains, only 12 of the 24 Labor legislators voted for the budget bill. One, Nawaf Masalha, voted against, and the remaining 11 members voted with their feet — by not being present for the vote.

The guiding hand behind the split in Labor’s vote was said to belong to Knesset member Haim Ramon, a potential rival to Benjamin Ben-Eliezer for party leadership — and an advocate for withdrawing from the unity government.

Some commentators hailed Sharon for standing up to the powerful Shas Party where other prime ministers, including his Labor predecessor, Ehud Barak, had capitulated.

Sharon has a number of options before him, they said, including bringing the secular Shinui party, which has six Knesset seats, into the coalition.

Following Monday night’s firings, Shinui said it was prepared to enter the government immediately and “without prior conditions” if the fervently Orthodox parties left the government.

In the meantime, the political scene was charged with speculation over whether Shas would join the opposition or return to the fold.

After learning of the dismissals Monday night, Shas minister Eli Yishai said he could not accept the social welfare cuts called for in the bill.

Yishai said in defense of his actions that if he had to choose between a seat in the government or defending the weak, “We prefer to stand with the underprivileged.”

But by Tuesday, there were different signals coming from the Shas fold.

Although the Shas Party’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, accused Sharon of “ingratitude,” he instructed ministers to keep the door open for further negotiations.

While the long-term political consequences of the budget vote were not yet clear, observers noted that the real loser in the Knesset battle was the nation’s economy.

Government failure to pass the austerity package — in light of continuing high unemployment, a yawning deficit and the ongoing security situation — could lead to a downgrading of Israel’s international credit rating.

This in turn could lead to higher interest payments on loans secured abroad and greater difficulty for Israeli businesses to get such loans as foreign investors become increasingly worried. This, in turn, could deal a devastating blow to the already weakened economy.

Following Monday’s Knesset vote, Finance Minister Silvan Shalom came under a hail of criticism for failing to guarantee a majority for the bill before presenting it for a vote.

For his part, President Moshe Katsav weighed in Tuesday, accusing the Shas members of shirking their responsibilities as Cabinet ministers.

“They can express their objections in Cabinet meetings or in the public debate,” Katsav said. “But as soon as it is brought before the Knesset as a government bill, they have a collective responsibility” to support it.

The bill, with slight changes, was expected to be brought before legislators for a new vote Wednesday, after the Knesset Interior Committee agreed to waive the 48-hour waiting period normally required before resubmitting legislation for a vote.

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