Knesset Approves 2005 Budget, Preserving the Sharon Government

Thanks to his trademark tactics, patience and political savvy, Ariel Sharon has overcome the biggest political hurdle of his career as Israeli prime minister. The Knesset approved the 2005 state budget on Tuesday. The budget vote always is a big event, but this time the 120 lawmakers were making a far more fateful decision for the Jewish state.

If the Economic Arrangements Bill hadn’t been ratified by Thursday, the Sharon government would have fallen and new elections would have been necessary.

That likely would have scuppered withdrawals from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank scheduled for this summer. Sharon has staked his political legacy on the plan, but many Israeli right-wingers were praying to defeat it.

Sharon managed to push through the $61 billion after debate on Tuesday, by a 58-36 vote, with one abstention, removing the last legislative obstacle to his plan to “disengage” from the Palestinians by withdrawing from settlements in the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.

“We will implement the disengagement and bring new hope to the State of Israel,” an upbeat Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Israel Radio before the vote.

The budget earmarks over $3 million for birthright israel, one-third of a total $10 million the program will get. Philanthropists and Jewish organizations will pay the remainder, Rivka Kanaret, a spokeswoman for Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, told JTA.

Funding birthright israel “is like earning money, because students are coming and bringing money into Israel,” she said. “It’s a very big success. The young people who come back after the program become young ambassadors for Israel.”

Last year, budget constraints forced the Israeli government to cut its funding for the program — which provides free trips to Israel for Jewish youths who have never visited Israel on a peer tour — to a token amount. But at the 11th hour, the government agreed to restore its commitment to the program for 2005.

Still, Kanaret said, Sharansky had to push to make sure the program was not left out again this year.

“He had to push because last year there was no budget” for birthright, she said. “Everything where you had no budget the year before, it’s is hard” to get money appropriated the following year.

On the overall budget, Sharon consolidated his majority by promising the main opposition party Shinui some $160 million in funding for its favored causes. In a deal aimed at further weakening opposition to the budget, the two-member United Arab List agreed to abstain from the vote after receiving a similar guarantee of funding for pet projects.

Sharon managed the maneuvering quietly, with a certitude that few found surprising in the former maverick army general, who has easily stared down challenges from right-wingers who believe the disengagement will encourage Palestinian terrorism — including a dozen “rebels” in Sharon’s own ruling Likud party.

“And so Sharon, despite his wild, reckless past and history of doing whatever he damn well pleased, has become one of the strongest, most pragmatic prime ministers since Ben-Gurion,” Ha’aretz commentator Yoel Marcus wrote.

The prime minister has been helped by polls showing that most Israeli support leaving Gaza as a means of containing the conflict with the Palestinians, and perhaps even kick-starting negotiations for a final peace agreement.

That general optimism apparently has flooded Jerusalem, where a bill to require a plebiscite on the withdrawals was blocked Monday by a decisive 72-39 Knesset vote.

Sharon had firmly rejected a referendum, seeing it as a tactic by the pro-settler camp to delay withdrawal past its July 20 start date. The government hopes to complete the withdrawals within a few weeks, so evacuated settlers have time to begin life anew in Israel proper before the new school year begins.

But many settlers still vow to fight — not through force of arms, but by passive resistance. Jarred by the loss of the referendum option and perhaps feeling the ebb of its popular support, the Yesha Council convened Tuesday to rethink its strategy.

“It’s a serious dilemma — ensuring that the struggle is directed at the political leadership rather than the police or military,” Yesha official Pinchas Wallerstein told Army Radio. “But we cannot give up.”

(JTA Staff Writer Chanan Tigay in New York contributed to this story.)

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