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Israeli and Palestinian Politics in Uncertainty and Disarray

Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon says he is determined to find new partners for his coalition government after suffering a major defeat in parliament. At the same time, the announcement that jailed Palestinian militant leader Marwan Barghouti will run in the upcoming elections threatens to shake up the contest over who will succeed Yasser Arafat to head the Palestinian Authority.

Prime Minister Sharon says Wednesday's vote in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, left him no choice but to dismiss his coalition partners and seek a new government.

Mr. Sharon told a gathering of newspaper editors in Tel Aviv that he has no choice but to widen his coalition by bringing in the opposition Labor Party and ultra-orthodox religious parties.

Mr. Sharon's political troubles came to a head late Wednesday, when as expected, the Knesset voted 69 to 43 against the 2005 budget, handing the prime minister a resounding defeat.

After the vote Mr. Sharon fired the ministers from his coalition partner, the secular Shinui party, who had voted against the budget. They objected to his decision to increase funding to smaller religious parties in return for their support in parliament.

But, Wednesday's vote was less about the budget than about the Prime Minister's plan to unilaterally withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip beginning next year. Much of Mr. Sharon's own Likud Party opposes the plan and that has left him seeking support elsewhere and walking a political tightrope.

Mr. Sharon remained defiant and his message was clear.

"The disengagement will be implemented. Full stop. I repeat, the disengagement will be implemented," he said.

The Labor party strongly supports the disengagement plan and Labor Knesset Member Haim Ramon made it clear that would be his party's reason for joining a Sharon coalition.

"The only condition that we have is that all the partners that are candidates to be in the government will be committed to the disengagement plan," he added.

That does not sit well with many of Mr. Sharon's Likud Party members, such as Yuli Edelstein.

"What I hear from Labor, both in public and in private, is that the only reason they are joining the government right now is to promote the unilateral withdrawal plan, which is in my opinion a very dangerous one for the country," he noted. "So, we will definitely do everything possible in order for this coalition not to appear."

If Mr. Sharon is unable to form a new coalition, he will have to call for early elections and the prime minister insists that is not what the country needs.

There has also been a major political shake-up among the Palestinians. Jailed militant leader Marwan Barghouti decided Wednesday to run in the presidential elections January 9. His wife, Fadwa, filed his candidacy papers in Ramallah just hours before the midnight deadline.

Mr. Barghouti, who is serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli jail for involvement in terrorism, had previously said he would not run and had thrown his support behind front-runner Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.

Palestinian political analyst Mahdi Abdelhadi terms it a wake-up call for Abu Mazzen.

"Abu Mazzen has to fight for every vote in every city, in every town, and not sit in his office and say, 'Elect me or you lose me,'" Mr. Abdelhadi explained.

Mr. Abdelhadi says it is likely a combination of Mr. Barghouti's own ambition and pressure from supporters among the younger generation of political activists made him change his mind. He says while a Barghouti candidacy certainly shakes things up, that is not all bad.

"Marwan is going to run for putting a clear message to the public opinion that the young generation has the right to change and they demand change, and he is sure he will not take the full majority, but it will show some democracy in the Palestinian house," he added.

Mr. Barghouti will have to run as an independent since the Fatah faction, to which he belongs, has already chosen Mahmoud Abbas as its candidate.

Israel and the United States have said that Mr. Abbas is a man they can deal with for resuming peace talks. Israeli officials vow they will not release Mr. Barghouti from jail even if he were to win.