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Sweating Sharon Gets Break: Budget Battle Turns His Way

TEL AVIV — With just three weeks left before his statutory deadline to pass a state budget — or face new elections — Prime Minister Sharon appears to have emerged this week onto a suddenly transformed landscape, turning what had looked like a life-and-death struggle into something more like a garage sale.

Theoretically, Sharon is fighting for his political life and for the life of his Gaza-West Bank disengagement plan. With 13 members of his own Likud faction vowing to vote against the budget as a last-ditch move to stop the July withdrawal, the prime minister can count on only 53 votes in the 120-seat Knesset. Most other Knesset factions are either ideologically opposed to the budget’s economics or dead set against the disengagement and itching to bring Sharon down before withdrawal can start.

This week, however, his opponents’ resolve began to crumble. Shas, the 11-member ultra-Orthodox faction that Sharon has wooed unsuccessfully for months, began hinting for the first time that it might abstain on the budget in return for economic concessions that Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for the first time, began suggesting just might be manageable. Shinui, the centrist, anti-clerical party that quit Sharon’s coalition last fall over concessions to a smaller Orthodox party, dropped broad hints that it might rally to Sharon’s side, if only to prevent Shas from cashing in. Finally, the Likud rebels, seeing their spoiler strategy crumbling, began breaking ranks, indi-

vidually naming pet budget projects that might win their own votes.

The reason for the apparent turnaround in Sharon’s fortunes is public opinion, which is solidly in favor of the disengagement plan and Sharon’s leadership. Sharon marked four years in office March 7, and opinion polls in all the major media indicated that his leadership — and his disengagement plan — remains hugely popular. In one poll, published March 4 in Yediot Aharonot, 61% said that Sharon was “the right leader at the right time” and 66% endorsed the disengagement plan. Fully 71% said they expect further withdrawals after this one is completed.

Crucially, support for the plan is highest among backers of opposition parties. According to the daily Ha’aretz, 100% of those who voted for the left-wing Meretz Party in the last elections said they would back the plan if it were put to a referendum, as Sharon’s Likud opponents demand. Among Shinui voters, support was 83%.

Those sentiments are redrawing Israel’s political map. In the Knesset, every vote on every issue, including the budget, is now subordinated to the issue of disengagement. That, more than anything, ensures Sharon’s survival. By pushing ahead with disengagement, Sharon is fulfilling the longtime goal of the Israeli left for a territorial withdrawal, even as he leads a center-right coalition. Opposition lawmakers, therefore, find themselves in an unlikely position. Whatever their views of Sharon, his economics or anything else, their voters expect them to save the prime minister so that he can proceed with the withdrawal.

Yossi Beilin, leader of Meretz, admitted in a conversation with the Forward that he would have a hard time voting against the budget, even though his party strongly opposes Netanyahu’s hard-nosed economics. Sharon knows that this same logic applies to the 15 seats of Shinui and even the nine Arab-party lawmakers. All of them would have to explain to their voters why they abandoned Sharon at crunch time and thus sank the disengagement plan.

Shinui’s calculus is less ideological than that of Meretz, but more wrenching. The party shares Meretz’s secularist views, supports territorial compromise and appeals to many of the same voters. Economically and diplomatically, however, it is closer to Sharon. Shinui was Sharon’s main coalition partner until last fall, when it bolted to protest the entry of the small, ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party into the coalition. Now Shinui leaders are divided over whether to return. The debate focuses on whether the party’s voters want it to punish Sharon for his concessions to the Orthodox, as party leader Yosef Lapid insists, or support him because of disengagement, as others argue with growing force.

Shas’s calculations are entirely different. Its Sephardic voter base leans hawkish, but is fiercely loyal to the party’s spiritual mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who does not rule out territorial concessions. Shas, however, is furious over subsidy cuts during the last two years that struck at the party’s base, including yeshiva stipends and large-family allowances. Party leaders calculate that supporting Sharon now would gain them nothing with their voters. But for a price — some $100 million — they’re reportedly willing to abstain on the budget and let Sharon survive. Netanyahu, the finance minister, had flatly opposed the concessions, but began backtracking this week.

Thus Sharon finds himself in a buyer’s market. Should he be in real trouble at budget time, it seems all but inevitable that the six Meretz lawmakers and a few Arab party deputies would support him, a scenario that every one of them would have deemed absurd a year ago. This would give Sharon the necessary 61 votes even without Shinui or Shas.

Shinui and Meretz are locked in a game of chicken, each waiting to see who will blink first in supporting Sharon. Should Shinui back the budget, Meretz would be spared the dubious honor of saving Sharon — and vice versa.

Sharon’s aides say they don’t care where the votes come from. “As far as we’re concerned, let Hamas vote for it — after all, one minute after the budget passes, the government is back on track,” one aide told Yediot this week.

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