PM to meet Lapid in bid to win Shinui support in budget vote

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Shinui chairman Yosef Lapid were slated to meet Saturday evening at Sharon’s Sycamore Ranch in the Negev to discuss the 2005 state budget. Sharon is now focusing on mustering a majority for next week’s crucial budget vote, which has to be approved by March 31 or else new elections will be called. Sharon’s office has targeted Lapid as the one obstacle left in Shinui who insists on opposing the budget. „Even MK Avraham Poraz has indicated he thinks that the party should help pass the budget but he remains loyal to Lapid,” said Sharon associates. Sharon is to meet Thursday afternoon with Netanyahu and coalition whip MK Gideon Sa’ar to make final plans to forge a majority for the budget in the Knesset next week, ahead of the March 31 deadline. The coalition still does not have that majority lined up, because of the Likud „rebels” who have vowed to vote against the budget because they oppose Sharon’s plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank. Olmert slams Netanyahu Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday mounted a fierce attack on Benjamin Netanyahu, suggesting that the finance minister’s priority was not to win passage of the state budget, but to spur the downfall of the Sharon government in order to supplant the prime minister. Olmert, who often enunciates policy for Sharon, spoke after Netanyahu lobbied Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef late on Wednesday to support a national referendum over the disengagement plan. A Shas decision to back the referendum is viewed as the only hope anti-disengagement forces have of winning a majority in a Monday vote over the plebiscite. If the referendum passes, analysts have said Labor may withdraw its backing for the State Budget in a subsequent vote, and the government could fall at the end of the month. However, Netanyahu’s initiative in meeting the Shas spiritual leader may have been in vain. Shas sources said overnight that the chances that Rabbi Yosef would change his position on the referendum were slim. In nationally broadcast interviews Thursday, Olmert strongly hinted that Netanyahu’s aims went far beyond passage of the referendum. „At this critical point, with the state budget hanging in the balance, the finance minister goes to the greatest of opponents of the budget, and doesn’t talk to him about the budget, rather talks to him about something that can bring about the fall of the government, the fall of the prime minister, the shattering of the economic system, and fouling our relationships with the world,” Olmert said. Asked if he believed that Netanyahu’s real intent was to break up the government, move for early elections and replace Sharon as prime minister, Olmert declined to answer directly. „Sometimes there are questions about which it’s enough just to raise them,” he told Israel Radio. Olmert said the question of whether Netanyahu was acting to undermining the prime minister was one „that is very difficult to overlook.” Sharon seeks split in Shinui to pass budget Sharon was meanwhile trying to find Shinui MKs prepared to defy their party leader Yosef Lapid and vote in favor of the State Budget. BPI-info

On Wednesday night, the group met with Sharon for the first time in more than a year, but he turned down their offer of a deal where they would vote in favor of the budget if he were to support a referendum on the disengagement plan. On Thursday, Sharon, Netanyahu and Sa’ar will try to come up with a working plan for the final days before the vote. The coalition has not ruled out seeking cracks in Shinui’s refusal to support the budget. „We’ll try to reach understandings with individual MKs from Shinui who don’t want to bring down the government,” said one source involved in the efforts to pass the budget. „It will be a divide and rule situation,” he said. The coalition is concerned the budget may pass by a very narrow margin, which could mean the rebels and other budget opponents could use thousands of proposed amendments to the budget’s individual articles to filibuster the budget bill. The bill must pass by midnight on March 31, or the Knesset will be dissolved automatically and elections held 90 days later. Referendum now moving to Knesset Netanyahu reportedly told Rabbi Yosef Wednesday that a referendum would help prevent a chasm in the nation. The rabbi promised to consider the matter, but warned that it was unlikely. But Netanyahu had his work cut out as Rabbi Yosef has also consistently been against holding a referendum on the disengagement plan. Ultra-Orthodox leaders have long warned that a referendum could later be used as a wedge to reverse legislation backed by the religious. Earlier on Wednesday, Rabbi Yosef instructed the party’s representative on the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, MK Nissim Ze’ev, to vote against the referendum bill when the draft law came before the panel. The panel approved the bill by a narrow majority of 9-8 on Wednesday. Yosef also instructed Shas MKs to oppose a vote on the referendum in the Knesset plenum. The committee vote was split as expected, with Likud MKs Michael Ratzon, Yuli Edelstein, Naomi Blumenthal, Gideon Sa’ar, Ayoub Kara and Michael Eitan voting against, as did Eliezer Cohen from the National Union, Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party and Avraham Ravitz of Degel Hatorah. Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev, Eitan Cabel and Yuli Tamir from Labor, Eti Livni and Reshef Chen of Shinui, Zahava Gal-On of Yahad, Ahmed Tibi from Hadash and Azmi Bishara from Balad all voted against the bill. BPI-info