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Israel’s Budget Passes First Test As Sharon Faces Upcoming Deadline

It appears to be budget or bust for Ariel Sharon. The $61 billion belt-tightening package has to be ratified by month’s end, or the Israeli government falls.

That’s exactly what many right-wingers opposed to the Gaza withdrawal plan, including some in the ruling Likud Party, are banking on. But the prime minister scored a coup Wednesday when the Knesset Finance Committee approved the 2005 budget by a vote of 10-9, clearing the way for parliamentary reading on March 29.

Political sources said Likud rebels on the panel had agreed to back the budget in return for a promise by Sharon’s party loyalists to push for a plebiscite on the withdrawals from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank slated for this summer.

Buoyed up by wide support in newspaper polls, Sharon has ruled out a referendum, seeing it as a delay tactic to put off his “disengagement plan” indefinitely. But the brinkmanship has raised fears of a Likud split.

“I don’t see how we can run together in the next elections when I support the disengagement plan and you don’t,” the prime minister told the dozen-or-so party lawmakers who oppose him.

Sharon’s coalition commands 67 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, but without the rebels this majority may not stand. He has made up for the lack of a cushion by courting opposition parties eager to see Israel withdraw from some of the land the Palestinians want for a state.

But that, in turn, has deepened the budget imbroglio, with the secular Shinui Party conditioning its support on funding being cut from religious institutions.

“A prime minister who depends on the mercies of the opposition — now that is something new,” political commentator Yoel Marcus wrote in Ha’aretz.

“But how can we complain about the opposition toying with Sharon and blackmailing him, if members of his own party, his own flesh and blood, have turned him into a hostage?”

Many analysts believe the Likud rebels will back down, that they will not risk bringing down the government.

“Going to elections would not be good for Israel right now, because the voting process would take at least three months and another three months would pass until a new government was set up,” Shimon Peres, whose Labor Party is the main coalition partner with the Likud, was quoted as saying on Army Radio.

But some believe the ruling party’s credibility has been hit hard by the infighting, and that early elections would be an opportunity for Labor to emerge refreshed and lead peacemaking efforts.

Yet most believe that Sharon can weather the storm.

“Sharon has no reason to be afraid of going to the polls. The majority of the public is behind him — not the zealots and the loonies,” Marcus said.

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