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Prime Minister Sharon Now Depends On Shas Party To Implement Gaza Withdrawal

Sharon’s Apparent Options: Give In To Shas Demands Or Call An Early Election!

Analyst David Essing: ‘Look For U.S. To Send High Level Envoy, Maybe Even Secretary Of State Rice, To Build Momentum Between Israel and Palestinians’

PM Ariel Sharon

Prime Minister Sharon managed to win a narrow Knesset majority for his new disengagement cabinet, but he is now facing a new crisis. Sharon’s Likud party expresses mounting annoyance over the Prime Minister’s dependence on Arab and Left-wing Yachad Knesset members. It was only with their votes that Sharon gained Knesset approval for his new cabinet with Labor and United Torah Judaism. Sharon has now turned to Shas, another ultra-orthodox party, in order to bring them into the coalition and silence Likud criticism. However, Shas is demanding major changes in the new state budget and a free vote when it comes to the withdrawal.

:: IsraCast Audio ::
MK Eli Yishai

Ariel Sharon is again behind the eight-ball. He needs Shas to quell Likud irritation over the new cabinet depending on Arab and left-wing Knesset members. But Shas leader Eli Yishai has told Sharon, he will have to pay and Shas will not commit to a unilateral Gaza pullout.

First, the right-wing Likud had to swallow Labor left-wingers in the government; now they see the cabinet needs the votes of Arab and far left Knesset Members to implement the controversial withdrawal. Minister Yisrael Katz and others say such a Likud lead government will eventually become illegitimate. Therefore, Sharon is now offering the Shas party to join his disengagement cabinet; only one hitch, Shas Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has issued a ruling against a unilateral withdrawal.

So, Shas is driving a hard bargain. At their first meeting, Shas chairman Eli Yishai informed Sharon of his shopping list which will reportedly top more than $220 million. In addition, Shas wants freedom of vote on the disengagement issue. The Prime Minister replied that he will check out the Shas budget changes with Finance Minister Netanyahu. As for the withdrawal, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef says it must be negotiated and the Palestinians must make a 'quid pro quo'. If that happens, Shas might then support the disengagement. The ultra-orthodox Sepharadi Shas can exert a lot of leverage on the Prime Minister. Unlike other political parties, Shas MKs say they are not afraid of an early election. Shas competes with the Likud for many of the same voters; it believes its position against unilateral withdrawal and Natanyahu's welfare cuts, will lead to big election gains.

Budget changes - the price tag for bringing Labor and United Torah Judaism into the disengagement cabinet was estimated at $200 million. A similar cost for Shas will mean slashing elsewhere in ministerial budgets. Finance Minister Netanyahu digs in his heels over increasing the overall state budget. But where there's a will, politicians usually find the way. Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations - the new Bush Administration can be expected to launch a crash program to start building up some momentum; Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon will need some 'bridging' to start the ball rolling. Look for a high level U.S. emissary, maybe even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice herself, to visit the area; 'It takes more than two to tango in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute'. In the initial stage, it is reasonable to assume that both Sharon and Abbas will want to put their best foot forward and not be blamed for undermining the 'great expectations' of moving toward the Roadmap.

David Essing

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