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Israeli Government Survives No-Confidence Vote But Long Term Outlook Uncertain

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government survived a crucial no-confidence vote in parliament Wednesday, when lawmakers approved his national budget for 2005. But the vote is only the first of several crucial tests for the government in the months to come.

It was another contentious day in the Knesset in the debate over the 2005 budget. In the end the vote was 64 in favor and 53 against.

This was the first crucial test for Mr. Sharon's new coalition government, which was just sworn in a few days ago.

The outcome looked uncertain when 13 members of Mr. Sharon's Likud Party said earlier in the day they would vote against the budget. Mr. Sharon had made it clear that he would not hesitate to call new parliamentary elections if the measure failed. In the end the rebels backed down and voted with the prime minister, allowing the measure to pass.

And so, the government survived, at least for now. But, Wednesday's vote was only the first of three required for the budget to become law and Likud party rebels have already threatened to vote "no" the next time around. If the budget is not passed by March 31st the government will automatically fall and new elections will have to be called.

These votes have less to do with the actual budget than with Mr. Sharon's plan to withdraw Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip and a small portion of the West Bank.

The "disengagement" issue has split Mr. Sharon's own party. Right-wing and nationalist parties also oppose it. The turmoil forced Mr. Sharon to put together a new coalition after his previous government collapsed over the issue and he is now relying on left-wing parties for support.

Opinion polls consistently show Israelis in favor of the withdrawal plan. Nevertheless, Likud opponents want Mr. Sharon to hold a nationwide referendum on the matter, a move the prime minister has rejected and labeled a mere stalling tactic.