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Israel's Parliament Gives Preliminary Approval to Sharon's Austerity Budget - 2002-05-22

Israel's parliament has given preliminary approval to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's austerity budget, handing the prime minister a key political victory. The vote came just two days after parliament had rejected the economic plan. It is still far from clear if the vote has ended the crisis in Mr. Sharon's coalition.

The Knesset, the Israeli parliament, approved Mr. Sharon's emergency economic plan by 65-26, with seven abstentions.

Two religious parties, which had helped defeat the bill on Monday, gave in to pressure and were absent during the latest vote.

After the Monday vote, a furious Mr. Sharon fired four cabinet ministers and three deputies from Shas and two deputies from another religious party, United Torah Judaism.

The dismissals are due to go into effect Wednesday and Mr. Sharon has indicated they will not be rescinded.

As a result, the two religious parties would be forced out of the government, reducing Mr. Sharon's coalition to 60 in the 120-member Knesset.

This would leave the government vulnerable to being toppled in non-confidence motions and forcing early elections.

To avoid this possibility, Mr. Sharon has the option of attempting to bring some opposition parties into the government.

The most likely contender is the six-member Shinnui, a secular-party often at odds with the religious factions.

The leader of Shinnui, Yosef Lapid, appeared to be preparing for the prospect of joining the government. Following Wednesday's vote, Mr. Lapid praised Mr. Sharon, saying he was the first Israeli Prime Minister to stand up to the Jewish ultra-orthodox religious parties.

An opinion poll published Wednesday in the Hebrew daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth indicated that 70 percent of Israelis supported Mr. Sharon's decision to fire ministers from the religious factions.