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Ideological Rifts Threaten Sharon’s Political Coalition

Prime Minister Sharon was dealt a stinging defeat this week when eight members of his own Likud Party joined the opposition Monday to block the appointment of two of his ministerial appointments.

The defeat raised the prospect of early elections.

Eight Likud members — including Sharon’s top party rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposed the Gaza pullout — helped sink Sharon’s bid this week to make Roni Bar-On the industry, trade and employment minister and Ze’ev Boim the immigration absorption minister. Sharon did succeed in having his closest Likud ally, Ehud Olmert, approved as finance minister and Labor’s Matan Vilnai as science and technology minister.

But the flap signaled the depth of ideological division in the Likud over the recent Gaza withdrawal.

“There will be consequences,” Sharon told the Knesset after the votes.

Political analysts said Tuesday that the prime minister, who lacks a clear parliamentary majority, could bring forward elections currently scheduled for November 2006. “This is not the end of the Sharon government, but it is the beginning of the end,” Yediot Aharonot political analyst Nahum Barnea wrote.

The anti-pullout Likud rebels opposed Bar-On and Boim because they view their appointments essentially as a reward for supporting disengagement.

Further complicating Sharon’s effort to hold together his unity coalition, was Labor’s election Wednesday for party chairmanship.

Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Labor’s current leader, has been a strong proponent of keeping his party in Sharon’s government. But his main challenger, Histadrut labor federation leader Amir Peretz, favors pulling Labor out of the government. Peres was the favorite going into Wednesday voting, but early polling data suggested that turnout was low — a development believed to boost Peretz’s chances for an upset.

Even if Peres were to win, it appeared as if Sharon would emerge from this week politically weaker after the Likud rebels dealt him such an embarrassing defeat.

There was talk of Likud setting up a “dialogue committee” to resolve internal factional disputes. The committee, whose decisions would be binding on the entire faction, would include Sharon and Olmert as well as two of the premier’s leading opponents, Netanyahu and Uzi Landau, and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

Several Likud lawmakers said they doubted that such a forum really could function effectively, given the deep mutual suspicion within the faction.

“People, let’s make a decision,” Shalom told the rebels during a meeting of the Likud faction before the Knesset rejected Sharon’s picks. “If we want to continue together for another year, then let’s do it. If not, then let’s split up the package and go to elections. We can’t continue to be humiliated day after day.”

Landau responded: “We do not want elections now. We must enable the prime minister and the government to function, but it can’t be a one-way street.”

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