02 December 2004

Sharon Fights Karmac Backwash...

Maybe Ariel should give his bully-boy G.W. a call!


Sharon Battles to Save Government from Collapse

Dec 1, 9:29 PM (ET)

By Matt Spetalnick

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Reeling from a parliamentary defeat, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon prepared on Thursday to open coalition talks to save his shattered government and avoid early elections that could stall his Gaza withdrawal plan.

In a twin political drama across the Middle East divide, a jailed Palestinian leader, Marwan Barghouthi, declared his candidacy on Wednesday for a Jan. 9 presidential election, shaking up the race to pick Yasser Arafat's successor.

Barghouthi, a popular grass-roots leader of the Palestinian uprising who made the decision to run from his Israeli prison cell, posed an immediate challenge to the frontrunner, elderly former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel's brewing political crisis spilled over when Sharon dismissed Shinui, main coalition partner to his rightist Likud, from the government for voting against the 2005 state budget in a first reading in parliament.

The parliamentary mutiny marked the sharpest threat to Sharon's grip on power since he was re-elected in January 2003 in a crushing victory driven by a shift to the right by voters amid a campaign of Palestinian suicide bombings.

Aides said Sharon would soon approach the center-left Labour Party and a smaller ultra-Orthodox party to join a "national unity" coalition to prevent his government's collapse. One Sharon confidant said a deal could be sewn up within two weeks.

But political sources said he would have to tread carefully to avoid antagonizing Likud hard-liners who oppose talks with dovish Labour Party chief Shimon Peres, whom they revile for his willingness to cede land occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.


The ouster of Shinui, a secularist party that broke with Sharon in anger over spending pledges he made to a religious faction, left Likud in control of only 40 of parliament's 120 seats, putting his government in jeopardy.

Sharon must now rebuild his coalition to avert snap elections two years ahead of schedule and an indefinite delay to his plan for "disengaging" from conflict with Palestinians by removing all settlements from Gaza and a few from the West Bank.

He could face his first test on Monday with a no-confidence motion over the economy. He is expected to survive with Labour support, but the vote could show how vulnerable he has become and raise the prospect of elections in coming months.

By law, his government must pass the budget by March 31 or resign. "There will be no elections," Sharon said confidently after it was clear the budget vote would go against him. The austerity spending package was defeated 69-43.

Having Labour on board would solidify majorities for the budget and Sharon's "Disengagement Plan." But Likud rebels bent on scuttling his Gaza plan have balked at any alliance.

Sharon aims to remove all 21 settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank in 2005 under a plan backed by Washington.

Labour is parliament's second largest group with 22 seats and supports giving up land in pursuit of peace. But Likud's Central Committee banned talks with Labour last August.

Sharon hopes Likud rebels, facing public distaste at any third national vote in less than four years and a consistent pro-pullout majority in opinion polls, will relent over Labour.

Palestinian politics were also thrown into disarray.

Barghouthi, 45, charismatic leader of the younger generation in the dominant political faction Fatah that named Abbas as its candidate, sent his wife to register him as a candidate.

His associates had announced last Thursday that he was in the race, but a day later he dropped out. On Wednesday, he opted to run as an independent but did not say why.

His move drew swift condemnation from Fatah, for which he had served as West Bank chief.

With polls showing Barghouthi more popular than Abbas, some Fatah officials said it could split the movement.

Israeli troops arrested Barghouthi in 2002. He was sentenced to five life terms last June for ordering militant attacks that killed five Israelis. He denied involvement, saying he was a political leader only.

Israel has ruled out any early release of Barghouthi. (Additional reporting by Wafa Amr, Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Cynthia Johnston, Dan Williams, Mohammed Assadi and Diala Saadeh) .


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