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Back Home To A Fight

Back Home To A Fight

Even as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas raised expectations with their almost identical pledges for an end to violence, Sharon’s own political fortunes at home were not as bright.

He faces a fight with his own foreign minister and other members of his party who are supporting calls for a referendum on the Gaza withdrawal plan. And Sharon does not yet have enough votes in the Knesset to win passage of the 2005 budget. If it does not pass by March 31, his government would collapse and new elections would be held.

Were that to happen, it would not be the first time an Israeli leader has gone with high hopes to a summit meeting with the Palestinians only to find those hopes dashed.

Benjamin Netanyahu attended a summit meeting in 1998 with President Bill Clinton and Palestinian President Yasir Arafat at Wye River in Maryland. Arafat pledged to combat terrorism and Netanyahu agreed to withdraw from more of the West Bank. Within months there were new elections and Netanyahu was defeated by Ehud Barak of the opposition Labor Party.

Barak held his own summit meeting with Arafat and Clinton at Camp David in 2000. Barak entered the talks with a sweeping plan that would lead to a Palestinian-Israeli peace treaty. The summit ended in failure and several months later Barak was trounced at the polls by Sharon of the opposition Likud Party.

Sharon’s domestic problems intensified even before he returned from the Sharm el-Sheik summit with the announcement by his foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, that he would lead the campaign for a national referendum on the Gaza withdrawal.

The push for a plebiscite is seen by Sharon as simply a stalling tactic by those opposed to the withdrawal, which is slated to begin this summer.

Shalom, who repeatedly has voiced his opposition to the withdrawal, said Tuesday afternoon that he favored the referendum provided it did not delay a withdrawal and that it had Sharon’s blessing. But the timing of his announcement was widely seen as a slap at Sharon.

Shalom’s announcement followed word that Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, an Orthodox spiritual leader in the United Torah Judaism Party, now supports a referendum. But Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of another Orthodox party, Shas, reportedly refused to change his opposition to the referendum, and there is said to be little support for it in the Knesset.

On Sunday, the Likud Central Committee chairman Tzachi Hanegbi is expected to set a date for the committee to debate and vote on a referendum. Although not binding on Sharon, a vote in support of a referendum is designed to pressure Likud ministers and others to drop their opposition to it.

“The national religious camp has turned this into a secular vs. religious conflict,” said Rabbi Michael Melchior, a Knesset member from the left-of-center Meimad Party. “The whole Likud today accepts that Israel needs territorial compromise if it wants to exist. The only people today who are fighting it are the national religious movements, which once were the most moderate of movements.”

There are 13 so-called “rebel” Knesset members from Likud who are against the disengagement plan and have threatened to vote against the budget unless a referendum is held.

Rabbi Melchior said during an interview in his Knesset office that he believes the rebels want the government to fall, and that Sharon can prevent that by garnering the Shas votes. To do that, Rabbi Melchior said, Sharon should bring the party into his government.

To win their votes, Rabbi Melchior said, Shas will demand about $250,000 more in social welfare benefits to the poor.

Former Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna said he is confident the budget will be adopted by the Knesset.

“We will not let Sharon fall while he is keeping with his strategy, which is our strategy,” he said.

“Shas can be bought, so it’s not a big deal,” Mitzna said last week as he stood outside the Knesset cafeteria. “If you come to a corner and there is nothing else you can do, they will buy them. And it is possible that [the secular] Shinui Party will also say that it will support the budget because Shinui can find itself voting against the budget and forcing Sharon to give hundreds of millions of shekels to Shas.

“So if they are clever, they will tell Sharon they will back you because they don’t want money to the Orthodox, and Shas in particular. But you see, it is not ready yet. It must come to a corner where there are only one or two days before the election in order to do it.”

No date has yet been set for the budget vote.

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