Sharon Fires Shinui over Budget Vote, and Now Must Shore Up Government

On the cusp of one of the stormiest years in Israel’s history, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is scrambling to keep his government afloat. Sharon on Wednesday fired ministers from the Shinui Party, his main coalition partner, after the secularist party blocked the 2005 budget to protest funding slated for religious groups.

That left Sharon in command of only 40 of the Knesset’s 120 seats and cast doubt on whether he can push through his plan to “disengage” from the Palestinians by withdrawing from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank next year.

“The prime minister gets rid of us, who support disengagement, for the sake of ultra-Orthodox factions who oppose disengagement. Does anyone understand the reasoning of that?” fumed Shinui’s leader, Justice Minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, before the budget’s first reading, which the government lost by a vote of 69 to 43, with eight abstentions.

Sharon was impassive as the votes were counted, and disappeared into his Knesset bureau to sign termination letters for Shinui’s five Cabinet members. But aides said coalition talks with the main opposition party, Labor, were imminent.

“I will not come with conditions, I will come with open ears, to hear what is on offer,” Labor leader Shimon Peres told Israel Radio.

But convincing Labor to join his coalition is far from Sharon’s main problem. He first must win over hardliners in his own Likud Party who are opposed to the idea of uprooting Jewish settlements from lands the Palestinians want for a state.

“I’m not saying the prime minister forced Shinui out, but the fact is that now he can tell Likud naysayers that if Labor does not come into the government, everyone will be out,” a Sharon confidant said. “The specter of early elections does wonders for party unity, and that can only help the disengagement plan.”

Under Israeli law, if the $60 billion austerity budget does not pass by March 31, 2005, the government must resign.

Sharon aides said there also would be talks with United Torah Judaism and Shas, two influential, fervently Orthodox factions that are sure to back the budget, given the $64 million earmarked for their causes.

That would rule out a return by Shinui. But as Lapid already has committed his party to supporting disengagement even from the opposition benches, Sharon can weather the loss if he can pass the budget.

Wednesday’s developments left only the Likud in a coalition that, when Sharon first unveiled it after he won reelection in February 2003, controlled 68 Knesset seats and covered 23 Cabinet portfolios.

“Israeli politics are so fragmented that the prime minister has decided on a tactic of ‘rolling coalitions,’ assembling parliamentary support inside and outside the government as needed,” the Sharon confidant said.

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