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SHARON - ULTRA-ORTHODOX SHOWDOWN

UTJ MK Ravitz: ‘Council Of Torah Sages Will Soon Decide Fate of Sharon Government & Withdrawal’

Sharon Officials: ‘If UTJ Does Not Enter Coalition By End Of Week, Sharon May Call An Early Election’

Analyst David Essing: ‘Possible Deal - UTJ Enters Coalition But Abstains On Withdrawal Vote: However, Sharon Demands Ultra-Orthodox Vote For Disengagement’

Religious MKs

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government and his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements now hang in the balance. In order to form a new coalition to carry out the disengagement, Sharon needs the five Knesset Members of United Torah Judaism, an ultra-orthodox religious party. The Prime Minister warns if UTJ does not agree to join a Likud-Labor by the end of the week, he might call an early election.

Time is running out. The ultra-orthodox party United Torah Judaism, with just 5 seats in the 120 member Knesset, is calling the shots. Prime minister Sharon has met UTJ's demands for government funding and autonomy for its institutions. This would have satisfied the small ultra-orthodox religious party. However, UTJ now finds itself holding the balance of power in deciding the fate of the Sharon government and the controversial disengagement plan. The fact is the party has been taken by surprise and does not really want this enormous responsibility. If UTJ joins the coalition, the far right will accuse it of enabling Sharon to implement the withdrawal. On the other hand, if it stays out, it will lose vital financial aid and also be blamed for bringing about the fall of the government and torpedoing the withdrawal.

This hot potato has now been passed on to the party's Council of Torah Sages where Rabbi Elyashiev holds sway. There is also the religious question of the Sanctity of the Land of Israel for not withdrawing, as opposed to the Sanctity of Life position argued by the pro-withdrawal camp. The rabbis are expected to hand down their ruling within a couple of days.

MK Brizon

Sources at the Prime Minister's Office say they better do so by the end of the week or else Sharon may call an early election.There is at least one way out of the current conundrum. This is the picture that emerges after talking with the various sides. UTJ very much wants to join the coalition but does not want to decide the outcome of the withdrawal controversy. Now without UTJ, there is a massive Knesset majority in support of the pullout. The deal could be that UTJ joins a Likud-Labor coalition but abstains on the withdrawal votes. This would get UTJ off the hook and 'have its cake and eat it too'. Only one problem though, the PM is still not buying it; Sharon demands that UTJ must vote in favor of the withdrawal if it joins his coalition.

Shinui, the secular party which quit the coalition because it rejected the political payoff to UTJ, says despite the apparent coalition crisis, it's a done deal. MK Zvi Brizon declares that UTJ will join the coalition and is simply holding out for more political 'goodies'.

David Essing

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