State Budget Becomes Sharon’s Bludgeon for Likud

The convention was called by Likud anti-disengagement rebels, led by minister without portfolio Uzzi Landau, for the express purpose of prohibiting him from integrating the opposition Labor party in the government coalition as a device for tilting the cabinet in favor of the coming evacuation from the Gaza Strip and Sharon’s disengagement program as a whole.
The original cabinet vote earlier this year went against the prime minister. The finance minister, foreign minister Silvan Shalom and education minister Limor Livnat led the Likud revolt against Sharon in the cabinet and forced the Gaza evacuation’s postponement to March 2005 for a second review. Co-opting Labor would enable Sharon to push the evacuation process through cabinet much sooner and sideline his Likud opponents.
To achieve this, the prime minister wielded the budget like a weapon.
He won Netanyahu over by firmly endorsing his budget proposal against a chorus of critics.
With the finance minister’s help, he shot down acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert who threatened to challenge Netanyahu with an alternative proposal. He then isolated Shalom, who suspects that his foreign affairs portfolio will be the first offering presented to Labor. Livnat was lured by an extra NIS 700 m ($156 m) for education. She immediately stood up and demanded that the party show solidarity with the prime minister. Defense minister Shaul Mofaz, ever Sharon’s staunchest champion, was rewarded with the gift of immunity from the across-the-board NIS1.6 bn ($356 m.) budget cutback. Defense was permitted to spread its cut over several years and granted a “loan” against the 2006 defense appropriation.
The first consequence of the battle of the budget was a declaration by the Histadrut Trade Unions Federation of national strikes starting September 1 with the budget-starved local councils, many of whom have not paid wages for months. The stoppages will move from sector to sector to protest the deep cutbacks in allocations to the poor, needy, sick and aged, and the treasury’s plans to fire several thousand more public workers. Labor activists asked: if defense minister may borrow against future revenue, why not the jobless, the large families and the single mothers?
The second consequence was an appeal by Sharon’s aides to the delegates’ sense of loyalty with a request that the convention refrain from “humiliating the prime minister.” Intense lobbying among delegates went on until the last moment. The Sharon faction sought a compromise formula to overcome the majority’s resistance to bringing Labor into the government and advancing on the road to evicting settlements. Likud rebels collected signatures to support a secret ballot to protect delegates from blandishments and browbeating alike.
However the convention vote turns out, it will suffer the same treatment as the Likud referendum: the prime minister will forge ahead regardless of the will of his party, just as he did when the Likud referendum opposed his disengagement policy. Sharon has never been known for respecting the niceties of the democratic process when they interfere with his decisions. On Wednesday therefore, he faces his disaffected party flanked by a full battery of all the top guns he has marshaled one way or another.
Will Shalom and Landau stand up to him at the risk of splitting the Likud? Will they put forward a motion to sack their party leader? Not likely. A compromise will be found at Labor’s expense in the full awareness that the prime minister is just as good at bulldozing the opposition as he is his own party. Only last week, to achieve an expanded government, he dragooned the anti-religious Shinu (Change), led by justice minister Tommy Lapid, into betraying its most cherished principle and consenting to sit in the same government as the ultra-religious Torah Judaism faction.
Sharon, at 76, with a repertoire of political wiles, ruthless manipulation and complete tone deafness to any wishes but his own, has survived the first half of his second term as head of the most docile cabinet ever seen in Jerusalem. Will that be his epitaph?
He has not created any major national enterprise, innovative project or enduring achievement to associate with his name. He may fairly claim to have diminished the destructive fury of the Palestinian war of terror war four and a half years after it was launched, but not ending it. Most military analysts agree the Palestinian military-terror threat is still present.
Neither has he achieved tangible progress towards peace, despite being the first Israeli prime minister to accept a Palestinian state and the evacuation of settlements.
Sharon and his spokesmen are fond of demanding credit for procuring American recognition of Jewish settlements blocs in the West Bank and defensible national frontiers outside the pre-1967 boundaries. This is not officially confirmed in Washington, even by the Bush White House. Indeed any time Israel’s security fence deviates from the pre-1967 Green Line, Washington comes down on Jerusalem like a ton of bricks and demands corrections, ably assisted by Israel’s Supreme Court.
With Palestinian terrorist threats building up again on the West Bank – repeated alarms in Jerusalem whose protective fence has been abandoned only one-third finished; the discovery this week of Qassam missiles in production in Nablus – the Sharon government might have shown some inventive initiative to get the fence up and working against all odds. This has not happened. Since this barrier is a vital component of Sharon’s disengagement program, its unfinished state leaves the entire disengagement plan very much on the drawing board.
On the economy, Sharon and Netanyahu have enacted a policy that promised to open up new international markets for Israeli goods as the key to new jobs by the end of the decade. This program was based on the American model which is wholly unsuited to Israel’s social, financial and diplomatic conditions and it is not exactly working too well in the United States either. In the meantime, the Sharon government is credited with generating the dizziest plunge into penury middle and lower class Israelis have ever experienced.
Here, too, Sharon as prime minister displays a tendency to start things and leave him in the middle when faced with tough problems. Maybe that is the secret of his survival.

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