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Sharon: No 'Change of Heart' in Firings - 2002-05-21


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he will not rescind the dismissals of cabinet ministers who voted against his government's emergency economic plan. There now is talk in Israel of early elections after Mr. Sharon said he is firing the ministers from two parties in his coalition.

Mr. Sharon says there will be no change of heart over his decision to fire ministers who voted in parliament on Monday against his government's planned austerity budget.

The economic package is designed to offset the costs of the Israeli army's recent military offensive in the West Bank to root out Palestinian terrorism. The plan includes higher taxes and cuts in welfare spending, which two ultra-orthodox Jewish religious parties refused to back.

As a result, Mr. Sharon announced he is dismissing ministers from the two parties, four cabinet ministers and three deputies from Shas and two deputy ministers from the United Torah Judaism.

The dismissals take effect Wednesday, when Mr. Sharon is expected to make a second attempt to get parliament to approve the economic plan.

If both religious parties withdraw completely from the government, then Mr. Sharon will be supported by 60 of the 120 members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

This would leave Mr. Sharon's government vulnerable to no-confidence motions, which would need only a single defector to bring down the government.

In order to avoid such a scenario, the prime minister is expected to ask at least one of the parties now in opposition to join his coalition. The most likely contender is said to be Shinnui, a secular party often at odds with the religious factions that voted against the economic plan.

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