Sharon gets latest coalition &mdash will it last

jerusalem | After months of parliamentary showdowns and backroom bargaining, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has finally cobbled together the coalition government crucial for his Gaza Strip withdrawal plan.

The alliance between the ruling center-right Likud Party, center-left Labor Party and fervently religious United Torah Judaism bloc was sworn in Monday, Jan. 10, shortly after Mahmoud Abbas was elected Palestinian Authority president, a twin coup hailed by many as a new opportunity for peace.

But early indications are that Sharon’s national unity government may prove short-lived.

It was ratified in the Knesset by a vote of just 58-56, with 13 Likud “rebels” siding with right-wing nationalists who have denounced Sharon’s plan to withdraw from Gaza and parts of the West Bank this year. The prime minister was saved by the sympathy votes of Yahad, a left-wing opposition bloc that supports the planned withdrawals.

“Mr. Sharon, you are the first prime minister in history who will be empowered to carry out his most important plan by the opposition, and contrary to the will of some in government,” opposition leader Yosef “Tommy” Lapid of the Shinui Party, which left the government last month, said in his Knesset address.

Even Sharon’s new Cabinet, which met for the first time Tuesday, Jan. 11, is unstable.

The five-member United Torah Judaism was nowhere to be seen, having declined to accept any government post for a three-month probationary period. The absence was a reminder of the fact that the faction officially opposes territorial concessions to the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, the eight new Labor ministers were quick to flex their partisan muscles.

Haim Ramon, a minister without portfolio, caused a stir by proposing that settlers who resist evacuation be prosecuted in military courts, a forum usually reserved for Arab terrorists.

“Keep the army out of this,” Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz replied.

Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz, another Labor member, commented on a petition by 34 reserve commanders from a West Bank brigade who refused to take part in any evacuation of settlements, suggesting a comprehensive restructuring of military support units.

Sharon shot the idea down, but word of the infighting reached thousands of right-wing Israelis who were camped outside the Knesset in protest tents.

“I do not anticipate this government will last long. There’ll be early elections soon enough” predicted Uri Ariel, a lawmaker from the far-right National Union bloc who joined the pro-settler activists.

It was to avert snap elections that Sharon, who lost his parliamentary majority after firing recalcitrant National Union and National Religious Party members from his Cabinet last year, joined forces with Labor under his old friend and political rival, Shimon Peres.

Peres had a new post — vice premier — invented for him. Apart from Ramon and Pines-Paz, the other Laborites in the Cabinet divvied up minor portfolios: Benjamin Ben-Eliezer to national infrastructure, Dalia Itzik to communications, Isaac Herzog to housing and construction and Shalom Simhon to environment.

But although Labor backs withdrawals from lands the Palestinians want for a state, and Peres lends much-needed diplomatic elan to Sharon’s government, the alliance may prove abortive in another crucial area: the economy.

Labor has made clear that it opposes Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s belt-tightening 2005 budget. It was largely to overcome this hurdle that Sharon wooed United Torah Judaism with promises of preserving special government subsidies to religious causes.

But Sharon cannot rely on United Torah Judaism or even his own Likud to approve the disengagement plan later this year — hence the “safety net” tacitly accorded him by Yahad and the secularist Shinui, which Sharon fired from the government last month after it blocked the budget to protest religious funding.

Some see the developments as signs of a new style of Israeli politics.

“The prime minister has proven himself to be a master at assembling the mini-coalitions he needs to pass decisions on an ad hoc basis,” a Sharon confidant said. “It seems that a watershed event like disengagement requires these sorts of unconventional tactics.”

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