For Sharon, 14 Days to Decide between Early Poll and New Government

Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was that close to losing the crucial Knesset vote Tuesday, October 26, on his plan to uproot Israel’s civilian and troop presence from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. His comfortable victory of 67 lawmakers to 45 against and 7 abstentions must be credited, above all, to the a last-minute switch by his four top ministers from no to yes.
Likud’s pro-settlement rebels almost wept with disappointment.
They were not consoled when Binyamin Netanyahu, finance, Limor Livnat, education, Israeli Katz, agriculture and Danny Naveh, health, followed the lead of the last remaining National Religious Party minister and gave Sharon 14 days to announce a national referendum on the withdrawal of settlements. If not, they promised to step down, making the government’s parliamentary situation untenable.
The government coalition can barely limp along with a minority of 58 in the 120-member Knesset. Sharon could not have driven his plan through parliament without the solid support of the left-wing opposition and Arab MK’s abstentions. None promises to support the 2005 state budget.
However Sharon is not dismayed and plans to use those 14 days profitably. He refused to blink over the referendum-or-else ultimatum his ministers slapped down minutes before the Knesset vote; his challengers wobbled and gave him their votes at the last minute. Two of their number, foreign minister Silvan Shalom and minister without portfolio Tsahi Hanebi, saw the light earlier and fell into line behind the prime minister without raising dust. But a weaker man than Sharon would have had a heart attack during the long minutes of doubt he endured about the vote’s outcome. The Likud ministers who almost caught him out need expect no mercy.
The prime minister lost no time in sacking two cabinet members who voted against his plan: the two ringleaders of the rebel faction minister without portfolio Uzi Landau and deputy minister Michael Ratzon. He is unlikely to back down in 14 days’ time – any more than he did when he was unsure of the parliamentary outcome.
Sharon has three good reasons for dismissing the referendum demand:
First,he holds a national referendum, for which special legislation would be needed, including endorsement of the question, to be a ruse for stalling the pullout.
Second, if he gives in, the same ministers will be there to block every one of the four stages still ahead of the withdrawal program whereby the cabinet must determine which settlements are evacuated and when. The split in his government and party over settlement removal is irreparable. Not only half a dozen ministers, but also the Speaker of Parliament Reuven Rivlin, head of the Knesset faction Gideon Saar, and chairman of the foreign affairs and security committee Yuval Steinitz, oppose the plan.
Third, elections hold out a much better prospect. After staring down his main rival former prime minister Netanyahu over the Knesset vote, Sharon will count on the electorate – or even Likud – picking him for a third term as prime minister. Even the anti-withdrawal rebels will think twice before placing their trust in Netanyahu and company after they jumped back from the brink in the Knesset.
Monday, Sharon was shown an up-to-date opinion poll that awarded 56% to his disengagement plan compared with 44% against it. The pollsters advised him that this majority would make a referendum too chancy to rely on because the population segment in favor was far less committed than its opponents. Instead of bothering to have their say they might well opt for a day on the beach, whereas its opponents would turn out in force. An early election is therefore considered a safer bet for Sharon than a referendum.
He was also informed that if Likud splits, the lion’s share of the campaign budget assigned parties under the election law would go to the faction he heads, leaving the rebels starved of funds.
Therefore, his win against his Likud challengers provides Sharon with a convenient starting point for an early election campaign.
But he has more than one attractive option. He will find it easier than ever before to cobble together a new coalition government with the opposition Labor party. He already has a good understanding with Labor leader Shimon Peres. Both are committed to the evacuation of Gaza and withdrawal of settlements. If Netanyahu and his gang of four make good on their threat to quit in 14 days, Labor’s quarreling factions will race each other to jump aboard the Sharon government and pick up the topnotch portfolios left vacant by the departing ministers. The chance of implementing the pullbacks will be an added lure.

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