Sharon dismisses Cabinet members

Ultra-Orthodox ministers are fired

party reshuffle could mean early election


JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fired ministers from the rigorously observant Orthodox Shas Party from his Cabinet last night after they voted against an emergency economic package in parliament.

Sharon's action significantly narrowed his government's political base and raised the possibility of early elections.

The move against Shas, an important partner in Sharon's governing coalition, will mean the loss of the party's 17 votes in the 120-member parliament and will make Sharon dependent on the Labor Party for his political survival as prime minister.

Labor, with 23 parliamentary seats, joined forces with Sharon in a unity government after he won a landslide victory in national elections last year, but differences over policy toward the Palestinians have occasionally strained the partnership and raised pressures within Labor to leave the coalition.

Without Shas, the parliamentary majority for Sharon's coalition is reduced from 82 to 65. His support is likely to be further reduced, to 60, by the expected departure from the coalition of another highly observant Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism.

Its deputy ministers were also fired by Sharon after they joined last night's vote against the economic package. Support by 60 lawmakers is considered a working majority under Israeli law.

Officials in Sharon's Likud Party said the strongly pro-secular Shinui party, with six seats, could join a coalition free of the Orthodox parties, a move that would bring Sharon's support back up to 66.

Whatever the final outcome, Sharon's move last night had the effect of rescrambling political alignments, and it raised speculation about the possibility of early elections.

The new political situation "is a snowball, and a snowball can grow and also lead us to early elections," said Yaron Dekel, political analyst for Israel Radio.

Shas traditionally has been a kingmaker in Israeli politics, playing a vital role in the formation and survival of governing coalitions. One of its four fired ministers, Shlomo Benizri, predicted there would be early elections and suggested Sharon was taking a grave political risk by ejecting the party from his government. "We wish him all the luck if he thinks he can go to elections without Shas or other ultra-Orthodox parties," he said in a radio interview.

The $2.7 billion emergency economic package was meant to reduce a growing budget deficit caused by higher defense spending during the 19-month-old Palestinian uprising and by lower tax revenues.

Shas and United Torah Judaism, which both derive substantial support from economically depressed communities, opposed the package on the grounds that it would reduce social welfare payments and raise taxes.

The government plan was rejected 47-44, a ringing defeat for Sharon, who responded by firing the dissenting ministers and deputy ministers. The dismissals go into effect in 48 hours.

Saron's dismissal of the Shas ministers came at a time when he enjoys high popularity among Israeli citizens in the aftermath of the Israeli military's sweep of the West Bank that was credited with having brought a reduction in suicide bombings by Palestinian militants that have killed scores of Israelis.

However, after an initial lull, the attacks have resumed. Yesterday morning a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at a busy intersection near the city of Afula when he was stopped for a security check. There were no other casualties. The episode came after a suicide bombing in Netanya in which three Israelis were killed Sunday.

In Beirut, Lebanon, a car bomb killed the son of Ahmed Jibril, leader of the militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. Israeli radio reports said the son, Jihad Jibril, was involved in smuggling arms and explosives to Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Ahmed Jibril accused the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad of responsibility for the killing, but a spokesman for Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Israel was not involved.

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