PM gives into Likud faction to exam referendum

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Monday reluctantly agreed to demands from the Likud Knesset fto establish a committee to examine the referendum issue but insisted he was bringing his disengagement plan to the Knesset next week nonetheless. Sharon also warned he would fire any minister who votes against the plan. Likud ministers at the closed-door session of the fmeanwhile warned against a split in the party. More than half the Likud MKs now favor a national referendum on his plan to disengage unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank.

But the prime minister is anticipating that once his bill passes the Knesset – it is expected to pass by a substantial majority – the wind will be taken out of the sails of the demand for a referendum, which he vehemently opposes. And although most of the opponents to disengagement support a referendum – Sharon believes they want one to delay or cancel the move – a key opponent of disengagement, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, has come out against the referendum idea, saying it undermines Israel’s parliamentary democracy. Monday’s political activity at the Knesset focused on the Likud faction, which devoted its pre-plenum meeting to the referendum issue. On the way to the meeting, the Likud MKs encountered dozens of pro-Sharon delegates from the Likud Central Committee who didn’t hesitate to corner MKs they knew to be opposed to the disengagement plan and the referendum, to try to persuade the MKs to drop their opposition. The crowd in the hallways outside the Likud meeting was so great that the security officers protecting Sharon had the entire corridor cleared before they allowed the premier through to the meeting. Even before the fsession, Sharon’s people began to realize that the referendum idea was gathering steam in the fand was no longer limited to diehard opponents of his disengagement plan. But he nonetheless spoke vehemently against the referendum during the closed door session of the Likud faction, before approving the informal panel to examine the referendum idea. And because 20 of the MKs and ministers did not get a chance to speak out, after three hours of caucusing, the committee was not even formally established, though MKs Michael Eitan, Ronni Bar-On, Gilad Erdan and Rivlin were named as likely members. The fmeeting was not stormy, said participants, but it was gloomy as some ministers predicted that without a referendum to „legitimize” the disengagement decision, the party might split in two. Agreeing to the referendum committee granted Sharon a temporary respite from the parliamentary pressure and meanwhile he was able to apply some of his own pressure, warning all the members of the fthat he is applying coalition discipline to the disengagement vote, which means any Likud minister or deputy minister voting against (meaning Ministers Uzi Landau and Yisrael Katz and deputy minister Michael Ratzon) will be fired. Monday in the plenum, the opposition gathered 54 votes and the coalition had to scramble to match that number for a tie in two separate no-confidence motions presented by Labor and Shas. A no confidence motion by the Arab parties was easily defeated in an 11-8 vote with 20 abstentions. The Likud originally planned to boycott the no-confidence motions, knowing that the opposition does not have necessary 61 voices for such a motion to have practical significance and it was likely going to win the vote. But a last-minute agreement for Meretz MK Roman Bronfman not to vote to offset the missing Likud vote of MK Ayoub Kra, overseas this week, made Likud whip Gideon Sa’ar send the finto the plenum to vote. The tie vote on the no-confidence measure was interpreted as another sign of Sharon’s weakness. And another sign was the announcement issued by the settler leadership in Gush Katif that they would not be attending a meeting with the prime minister in his office Tuesday. The settlers said that they decided against meeting him after they heard „a detailed report” from Yesha Council leaders and realized that the prime minister „is not interested in dialogue with us.” Sharon is confident of a majority vote for disengagement next week, but his real problem is the budget – and as long as the budget includes explicit allocations for the disengagement, as many as a dozen and possibly more Likud MKs will vote against the budget, as will the opposition, including Labor. If he is unable to win even a simple majority for his budget, it brings down his government. Monday, at a meeting with President Moshe Katsav, Sharon said he does not want elections now, „but if there is no alternative,” he is prepared to go to the polls. BPI-info