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Shinui Leader Lapid Saves Gaza Withdrawal

Sharon-Lapid Deal Guarantees New State Budget Preventing Government’s Fall

Gaza Referendum Bill Now Dead Letter

Kurtzer Aftershock - Damage Control

FM Silvan Shalom & Condoleezza Rice

It has been an amazing political weekend, even by Israeli standards. First the reported comments of U.S. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer appeared to sabotage Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s drive to implement the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and 4 West Bank settlements this summer. But just over 24 hours later, Shinui leader climbed down from a high tree to accept some $160 for Shinui’s political interests; this has saved the new budget, prevented the fall of the government and the end to Sharon’s withdrawal plans, for the time being anyway. U.S. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer also got into the act by reportedly denying Sharon’s claim of a deal with President Bush on Israeli settlements blocs on the West Bank.

P.M. Sharon

As predicted byIsraCast , Shinui leader Tommy Lapid has prevented the fall of the Sharon government and the postponement or killing of the Prime Minister's Gaza withdrawal. The opposition party had threatened to defeat the passage of the new state budget in the Knesset this week which would have forced Prime Minister Sharon to call an early election; the Gaza withdrawal would then have gone on hold or scratched altogether.

MK Lapid

Lapid's centrist Shinui party is a firm supporter of the withdrawal as are its voters. Shinui would have shot itself not in the foot, but in the head, if it had put the kibosh on the evacuation. So that is why Lapid accepted Sharon's invitation to supper on his Negev farm; they then signed the deal giving Shinui the say on how to allocate over $160 million dollars in the new budget. Shinui says the money will go to university students, payments to reserve soldiers, culture, science and ecology. Take with a grain of salt, Lapid's claim that the Kurtzer comments really put the withdrawal in jeopardy. Lapid would have made his climb-down down on Sharon's farm with nor without the Kurtzer furor.

  • Catch as catch can' coalition politics - Shinui is certain that, although it is being hauled over the coals by other parties and the media, its constituents will give Shinui credit for saving the disengagement. Political parties charge that after Lapid's bluster about high principles he accepted a 'pound of political flesh' from Sharon. Critics argue that secular Shinui, whose battle cry is against the political extortion of the ultra orthodox religious parties, is also guilty of blackmail. The fact of the matter is that this is really how coalition politics are run in Israel. The parties use what political clout they have in order to advance their political interests.
  • The vote count - Shinui's 14 MKs can be expected to carry a majority of 68 in the 120 member House on the new budget. Again, with Shinui, over 60 MKs will likely vote down the bill for a national referendum on the Gaza withdrawal. (If passed this might also have lead to an early election because Labor had threatened to bolt the coalition).
  • Kurtzer Aftershock - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had to work overtime this weekend to clear up the mess after her Ambassador's alleged comments that Sharon has no deal with President Bush on Israel's keeping settlement blocs on the West Bank. Dan Kurtzer denied he had said any such thing in his closed lecture to Foreign Ministry cadets in Jerusalem. In a letter to Sharon last April, Bush spoke about the need to take into account the new reality on the ground and that the President supported Israel's retention of major population centers. Bush also spoke of Israel not having to return to the old lines of 1949; that is of 1967 before the Six-Day War. In an interview with Israel Radio, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that the U.S. stands behind the Bush commitments to Sharon. However, the U.S. would not prejudge where the borders should be; that should be left to the final status negotiations. The Bush letter is of great importance in the ongoing withdrawal debate in Israel. Sharon has used it to try and sell his disengagement program which he contends lead to the Bush commitments. The Prime Minister's office says it accepts the American version that Kurtzer was misquoted and that the U.S. stands behind the Bush letter.
  • More reactions - Labor Party leader and cabinet minister Shimon Peres also says that Ambassador Kurtzer is an experienced and professional diplomat and he doubts the reliability of the comments attributed to him in Yediot Ahronot. However, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who is challenging Peres for leadership of the Labor party, tends to believe Kurtzer did make the controversial comments. Barak points out that Secretary Rice has criticized the building of another 3,500 housing units at the town of Maale Adumeem, near Jerusalem. Moreover, the U.S. also opposes the building of the security around the town and at Ariel, which would also be considered a major Israeli population center on the West Bank. Barak charges that Sharon is trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the Israeli public.
  • Who leaked the Kurtzer lecture - Suspicion has focused on Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom who, in the past, has criticized the Gaza withdrawal. At Sunday's meeting, Shalom categorically denied it saying the Public Service Commission should launch an investigation, adding that he wants to be the first one questioned. Shalom and Finance minister Bibi Netanyahu are rivals to succeed Sharon as Likud party leader. This week, Netanyahu had a midnight meeting with Shas Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, apparently trying to get Shas support for the national referendum, which is opposed by Sharon (The Prime Minister has blasted Netanyahu over the move). The speculation is that Shalom might have leaked the Kurtzer bombshell in order to also score points in the Likud party. In any case, now that the opposition party Shinui is backing Sharon on the budget and against the referendum, barring unforeseen circumstances, the Prime Minister and his withdrawal plan should now be home free.
  • Longer term - an early election may be in the offing in any case. There are 2 possible scenarios: 1) next fall, if the withdrawal is successfully implemented, Sharon might want to cash in by calling an early election 2) after the withdrawal and after Israel and the Palestinians get into the Roadmap peace process, Likud and Labor could cross swords over how fast to move ahead and make concessions to the Palestinians. (Shimon Peres is now calling for Israel to approve over 30,000 more Israeli permits for Palestinians in the territories.) In this case, if Labor bolted it could trigger an early election or possibly Shinui rejoining a Likud lead government.
David Essing

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