Strange Bedfellows Bid to Rescue Sharon Government

The Sharon government’s permanent crisis peaked again this week over the insufficiency of parliamentary votes to get the 2005 state budget through its first reading Wednesday, December 1. The deadline for its second reading and final enactment is December 31. The acrobatic wheeling and dealing for a majority has accelerated the break-up of national mainstream parties and created incongruous juxtapositions. For instance, the far-left Yahad will vote for a avowedly anti-social budget to help the prime minister last long enough to achieve withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank. The treasury claims there is no money for the poor, the elderly, the handicapped and the jobless, yet it has stumped up the round sum of NIS.290 million (US$65 m) for the Torah Judaism’s five votes for the budget. Abstentions by the 11 members of a second ultra-religious opposition party Shas will also cost the public purse. In protest, the four Shinui (Change) ministers and its 15 Knesset members announced they would vote against the budget draft. The prime minister responded to this act of defiance by his largest coalition partner by declaring that any minister failing to back the budget would be fired.
The minority coalition line-up led by Sharon’s fractured Likud has been progressively whittled down in the last six months. Shinui’s departure would bring the government down and force an early election barring a quick remedy.
The prime minister, in a race to hold his disintegrating government together for long enough to execute his disengagement plan, has again sent messengers to the opposition Labor party (22 MKs) with an offer to join his coalition – anything to stave off the second general election in two years that would scupper his plan. Last week, Sharon and the sympathetic Labor leader Shimon Peres, himself a former prime minister, reached a quiet understanding to buy time by four steps:
1. Scare tactics against Likud anti-disengagement rebels to impress on them that if the government falls now, their own future and that of the party is fraught with uncertainty. Step one was taken last week when ministers opposed to the removal of settlements but loyal to the prime minister were elected to key party posts. They defeated the rebel faction leaders. Labor’s task in this scenario is to bombard the government with no confidence motions. Labor’s motion Monday, November 29, was defeated as expected, but kept the specter of dissolution in the forefront of the lawmakers’ consciousness.
2. To co-opt Labor to the government coalition without portfolios. This stratagem is designed to overcome its members’ objections to Likud policies in every field excepting only disengagement by relieving them of responsibility for those policies. Likud ministers may buy this lease of life if at least one religious party is brought in as well and they do not have to sacrifice portfolios.
3. To execute disengagement by the end of 2005. With Labor, Sharon would be sure of majority cabinet support.
4. To bring the general election forward from 2006 to late 2005.
This proposed timeline is a device to disarm threats to the leadership of Sharon and Peres in their respective parties.
Sharon believes one year will be too short for his foremost rival, finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu, to repair his flawed image. His party following was disenchanted by his climb-down over a referendum on disengagement; large segments of the electorate bitterly resent his economic policies which favor the rich and neglect the needy.
As for Labor, one year, so Peres hopes, will be not suffice for another former prime minister, Ehud Barak, to buy his way back into the good graces of the Labor party and run against him for the top party spot . Laborites do not forget that he dumped them at their lowest ebb after he was thrown out of office.
Heedless of these considerations, the various parties are already acting as though the election campaign was upon them. Vital government business is left in midair as the factions make a show of flexing muscles over the budget and other urgent issues instead of giving them serious parliamentary attention.
Against this backdrop, Labor’s central committee convenes Tuesday night, November 30. Peres will face a pressing demand from his opponents, Matan Vilnai and Barak, both hot contenders for the party leadership, to make the party’s entry to government conditional on full-scale party preparations for a general election, including an internal vote on the Labor slate of candidates. This would throw the leadership race wide open much earlier than suits Peres. He will therefore fight for his timeline deal with Sharon while seeking Labor endorsement for joining the government.

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