Sharon in standoff with ultra-Orthodox parties

Israeli leader demands support on economy vote

May 22, 2002|By Mary Curtius | Mary Curtius,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon continued to play hardball yesterday with two ultra-Orthodox parties a day after he fired their Cabinet ministers for helping to defeat the government's economic austerity plan in parliament.

While speculation mounted that the infighting might lead to the government's collapse and early elections, Sharon said he would not back down in his confrontation with Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Both parties voted against the economic package, saying it would hurt the poor.

The former general ordered his aides not to return telephone calls from leaders of either party.

He vowed that negotiations with them will begin only after he puts his budget cuts before the Knesset, Israel's parliament, again today.

No changes will be made in the proposal before the vote, Sharon said.

"He's playing chicken, and he wants to show them that he's a good player," said Gideon Doron, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University and specialist on the Israeli political system.

Sharon's tough stance diverted attention from what Israeli political analysts described as the debacle he suffered Monday night when he failed to win approval for his economic plan despite leading the broadest coalition government in Israeli history.

An infuriated Sharon withdrew to his offices at the Knesset after the plan lost by three votes.

There, he told his aides that "no one spits in my face," Israeli television reported, and he fired off the letters of dismissal to four Shas ministers.

By yesterday, as the Shas ministers huddled with their spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, to map out a strategy, Sharon was winning praise for standing up to them.

Ultra-Orthodox parties have caused the collapse of both left-wing and right-wing governments on several occasions, usually in disputes over budget allocations.

Their ability to extract funding for religious schools and subsidies for ultra-Orthodox families is widely resented by many secular Israelis.

Sharon's decision followed another recent political setback for the prime minister.

Last week, his party's central committee adopted a resolution ruling out the establishment of a Palestinian state, in direct contradiction to Sharon's stated support for eventual Palestinian independence.

"For the second time in less than 10 days, Sharon made a dignified decision which does not necessarily dovetail with political considerations," wrote the daily newspaper Maariv in its lead editorial yesterday. "He sent a clear message to his Shas partners, who dared to undermine the economic plan which is essential to saving the economy."

Pollster Rafi Smith said Sharon's decision in March to launch a massive military sweep through the West Bank, and his confrontation May 12 with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before their Likud Party Central Committee over the question of Palestinian statehood, bolstered his popularity.

In a telephone survey conducted by Smith's company Monday night before the Knesset vote, Sharon received high marks from Israeli voters for leadership.

Asked whether they preferred Sharon or Netanyahu as Likud's next candidate for prime minister, "the general population prefers Sharon over Netanyahu by a margin of 55 percent to 22 percent," Smith said.

"It is one of the biggest margins our polls have given him over Netanyahu," he said.

That margin, Smith said, is likely to increase if Sharon faces down Shas or even if he decides to call elections.

But if Sharon does opt for early elections, his support could melt away if there is a new surge of terrorist attacks or the economy's downward trend spins out of control between the dissolution of the Knesset and the vote.

"The problem is that things are very fragile," Smith said. "So, early elections would be a risk."

A second vote on the budget plan was expected to come just hours before the dismissals of the four ministers took effect last night.

A fifth Shas minister, who was not fired because he is not a Knesset member, resigned in solidarity with his party.

Sharon also dismissed three Shas and two United Torah Judaism deputy ministers.

If the ultra-Orthodox ministers decide to abstain from the balloting on the economic plan rather than vote against it, Sharon is expected to rescind the dismissals and his coalition will remain intact, analysts said.

But if they again vote no and quit the government, Sharon will be left with just 60 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

Sharon's gamble is that Shas, the third-largest party in the Knesset, will relent rather than face early elections.

Polls show the party probably would lose five or more of the 17 seats it holds if elections were held within the next six months.

Mary Curtius writes for The Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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