Israeli coalition fractures

Six Labor Party ministers abandon posts in Sharon's government over budget

Dispute on aid to settlements

With Labor's withdrawal, Sharon could lose vote of confidence on Monday

October 31, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Leaders of the left-of-center Labor Party resigned yesterday from the coalition government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon over the issue of financial aid to Jewish settlements, placing the future of Sharon's government in doubt.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who is also the Labor Party head, resigned from the Cabinet after hours of negotiations between Labor and Sharon's right-wing Likud Party about next year's budget. The resignations of Ben-Eliezer, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and four other Labor ministers are scheduled to take effect tomorrow.

Sharon faces the choice of either governing with a new, narrow coalition of far-right and religious parties or calling for parliamentary elections by April. The end of his partnership with Labor is almost certain to stall U.S. efforts to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

In an angry address to parliament last night, Sharon denounced Labor's decision, accusing the party's leaders of putting their political interests ahead of the nation's interests. He vowed to "lead the state responsibly."

Ben-Eliezer, who is being challenged for leadership of the Labor Party, sought to divert $147 million earmarked for Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to retirees, university students and needy communities within Israel. Sharon offered to provide more money for social programs but not at the expense of settlements.

Ben-Eliezer also wanted Sharon to agree that settlers would not receive preferential treatment over citizens living in Israel, especially when programs were being slashed across the board.

"It is unthinkable that in the state of Israel in 2002 there will be thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of hungry children," Ben-Eliezer told parliament after resigning, also pointing out that of 6 million Israelis, 300,000 are unemployed.

"It is hard for you to see the Labor Party vote against the budget on the basis of gloomy economic and social data," Ben-Eliezer said amid taunts from ultra-Orthodox members of parliament. "Go walk in the neighborhoods and the development towns, go see how many soup kitchens have been set up."

Sharon faces another test Monday when a no-confidence vote is scheduled. Its sponsor, the leftist Meretz Party, will probably win support from Labor and could get the necessary 61 votes in the 120-member parliament to force new elections in 90 days.

`Sharon threw a rope'

Israeli governments are notoriously fragile and routinely seem about to collapse. In the past decade, none has lasted a full term. But some members of parliament criticized Ben-Eliezer's decision and pointed out that Sharon tried to give him a way out by offering more money for social programs.

"Sharon threw a rope for [Ben-Eliezer] to climb down from a tree," Yossef Lapid, a member of the centrist Shinui Party, told reporters. "He took the rope and hanged himself."

Ben-Eliezer, who faces a tough election Nov. 19 for party chairman, appeared to be launching his campaign, now free of Sharon's hold and able to tempt left-wing voters by confronting settlers.

He said money is available to help Israel's underprivileged: "Take it from the settlements," he said.

Supporting his budget

Sharon defended his budget as being "based on the good of the state and the needs of its citizens." He suggested that Ben-Eliezer had quit only to further his own campaign as Labor leader and had deserted a country that needs unity.

Settlers were in mortal danger and in need of support, Sharon said, describing an attack Tuesday in the West Bank settlement of Hermesh in which a Palestinian gunman killed a woman and two children.

"On such a day, all day long, we dealt with nonsense," Sharon said, his voice rising in anger as he ignored catcalls. "I felt deep shame."

Throughout his remarks, Sharon referred to Ben-Eliezer as "my dear friend." But at the end, he looked down on the outgoing defense minister and said: "Is this what you go and break up the government over? At such a crucial time for Israel's economy? Enough. There is a limit to the disgrace."

Labor's criticisms

Some Labor leaders had long urged their party to pull out of the government, saying that their voices were never heard and had exerted little influence on policies. Instead, they felt that Sharon used their presence to appear more moderate.

Ben-Eliezer told reporters that without Labor in the government, Sharon will never achieve peace with the Palestinians.

"We have reached a situation where to the best of my understanding, we have exhausted all the possibilities of the military," Ben-Eliezer said. "We have reached a situation where the government must present its political options."

Ben-Eliezer, one of Labor's most hawkish members, said Sharon "is incapable of presenting the political horizon today. We shall do it from the outside. We shall go and fight."

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