Sharon works to save Budget, government

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Thursday stepped up pressure on opposition MPs to back his 2005 Budget, which Parliament must pass within two weeks or the government will collapse, jeopardising his planned Gaza evacuation.

The 2005 state Budget, which needs to scrape through two readings in the Knesset by March 31, has been touted as the last political chance for staunch opponents to scupper Sharon’s plan to quit Gaza.

Lacking an overall majority in the Parliament and hounded by 13 “rebel” MPs in his own right-wing Likud party, the prime minister will have to rely heavily on opposition support for the Budget to have any chance of success.

With time drawing near, Sharon on Thursday held talks with the leader of the secular centrist Shinui party, Yossef Lapid, and Amir Peretz, MP of the One Nation party and head of the Histadrut trade union confederation.

The back-room political wrangling follows days of lobbying on Sharon’s behalf with MPs from across the political spectrum, while his aides have petitioned the support of opposition Arab Israeli deputies.

Sharon unceremoniously sacked five Shinui ministers from his Cabinet after they voted against the original Budget in December, but the party may be persuaded to come into the fold in order to shore up the Gaza withdrawal.

In December, Shinui was furious at Sharon’s efforts to win the vote by channeling funds towards religious parties’ pet projects, but on Thursday, Shinui number two Avraham Poraz appeared amenable to coming to heel.

“There could be some discussion if, for example, we can move forward on implementing civil marriage in Israel,” he told army radio.

At the moment, Jewish Israelis can only wed at a religious ceremony conducted by a rabbi.

However, Lapid kept his cards close to his chest, saying only that “as things stand, our party will vote against the Budget”.

Most political analysts predict that Sharon will be in deep trouble unless he can rescue the Budget.

“Left-wing opposition MPs and Arab groups want to support him or at least abstain to avoid early elections,” said public radio commentator Hanan Cristal.

The Bill did pass its first reading in January when the 13 Likud hardliners decided at the last minute not to betray the government. But their support in the next phases is far from certain.

Failure would precipitate elections, probably in June, which would risk consigning Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan, scheduled to begin on July 20, to the backburner.

Meanwhile, Israeli-Egyptian relations took a step forward with the arrival of Cairo’s newly appointed ambassador to Israel after a four-year diplomatic hiatus between the two countries caused by the Palestinian uprising.

Mohammed Asim Ibrahim was welcomed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport by officials from the Israeli foreign affairs ministry, the spokesperson said.

“He will present his credentials to President Moshe Katsav on Monday together with the new Jordanian ambassador,” the spokesperson added.

Jordan and Egypt—the only two Arab states to have signed peace treaties with Israel—announced the return of their ambassadors after a Middle East peace summit in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on February 8.

Egypt, which signed peace with Israel in 1979, withdrew its ambassador shortly after the intifada broke out in September 2000, while Amman did not replace a departing envoy in protest at Israel’s actions to quell the uprising.

Meanwhile, top-level talks between the 13 main Palestinian factions were expected to wrap up later on Thursday without declaration of a formal ceasefire.

Radical Palestinian groups gathered in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, have opposed the concept of a unilateral cooling-down period to that of a fully-fledged truce, for which they would request something in return from Israel.—AFP


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