PM, Shinui stick to their guns as budget showdown nears

The Shas fannounced that it would vote against the state budget in its first reading Wednesday evening. Shas Chairman Eli Yishai said that the party’s votes wouldn’t have a real effect on the outcome. Shinui is also expected to vote against the budget, and will leave the government. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is determined to bring the 2005 budget to the Knesset for its first reading Wednesday, even though he still lacks a majority for the bill. As the Knesset prepared for the vote that could fracture Sharon’s ruling coalition, the prime minister and Shinui set for a showdown, with the budget proposal likely to fail and the cabinet ministers of the secular-centrist party headed out of the government. Shinui’s 14 Knesset members were to convene at 5:30 P.M. to finalize how they intend to vote. At the meeting, the four Shinui ministers will also discuss whether they will submit their resignation before the vote, which is scheduled for 8 P.M. If the ministers do not resign ahead of the vote, and they subsequently oppose the budget, Sharon has intimated that he will fire them and start negotiating with Labor.

Sharon was quoted as saying on Wednesday that even if the Shinui ministers decide to abstain rather than vote „no,” he will sack them. If the budget fails in its first reading, a revised proposal – perhaps including larger allocation to ultra-Orthidox parties – could be introduced next week. Senior Labor and Likud officials discussed the possibility of Labor’s entry on Tuesday, and the prospects of this happening seem better after Labor’s Central Committee voted Tuesday night to postpone a decision on a date for the party’s leadership primary until December 12, thereby giving the party 10 days in which to conduct negotiations. Once a date for the primary is set, Labor’s entry into the government is considered unlikely, unless it is far into the future. Shinui’s threat to vote against the budget stems from its objection to Sharon’s promise to transfer NIS 290 million to institutions affiliated with the United Torah Judaism party in order to obtain that party’s support for the budget. Without UTJ, Sharon also lacks a majority for the budget. Shinui attempted to diffuse the crisis Tuesday by suggesting that the budget vote be postponed until a solution to the disagreement can be found, but Sharon refused. „I want you in the government, but you created this crisis, and you will have to find a way out of it,” Sharon told Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, who requested the postponment on Shinui’s behalf. But Justice Minister Yosef Lapid, Shinui’s chairman, said the party has no intention of backing down from its ultimatum. „We are accountable to the public that elected us to fight Haredi extortion,” he said. „If Sharon thinks that he will get us to cave in like Bibi, he is mistaken,” added Lapid, referring to Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who backed down from his threat to quit the government a few weeks ago. Aside from his problem with Shinui, Sharon is still uncertain whether he has the support of all 40 Likud MKs. Party MKs who oppose the prime minister’s disengagement plan will meet Wednesday to decide how to vote on the budget, and some of them are likely to absent themselves from the vote, or even vote against it. Sharon is also negotiating with the National Religious Party and two lone MKs, David Tal and Michael Nudelman. If Shinui’s five ministers are dismissed on Wednesday, the dismissals will take effect only after 48 hours, during which time the sides can engage in negotiations in an effort to repair the rift. If that fails, Sharon would embark on intensive efforts to try to bring in Labor, since the only other option – bringing in both UTJ and Shas – leaves him with a minority government of only 57 MKs. He will be forced to move quickly, because the next no-confidence motion against the government is scheduled for Monday – and with Shinui out of the coalition, the opposition is theoretically capable of mustering the 61 votes needed to topple the government, even if Sharon has UTJ’s support plus the safety net that Yahad is providing. If Sharon is unable to get his party to agree to let Labor join, he will have no choice but to call new elections. That is a real possibility, since much of the opposition to Labor within the Likud Central Committee stems from opposition to the disengagement plan, whose implementation would be facilitated by Labor’s entry. However, there also is a strong aversion to new elections within the party, since Likud would almost certainly not keep its current 40 seats, and many current MKs, therefore, would lose their jobs. Sharon is hoping that this danger will persuade his party to support Labor’s entry. BPI-info