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Sharon Faces Crucial Test of Political Strength - 2002-05-21


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faces a crucial test of his political strength on Wednesday, when the parliament votes for a second time on his planned austerity budget. The move comes after Mr. Sharon fired rebel ministers in his cabinet who voted to reject the economic plan.

Mr. Sharon has decided to go on the offensive against rebel factions in his government that voted against his budget plan on Monday.

He is challenging two ultra-orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, to support the government when his package of economic measures is put up for another vote on Wednesday.

Otherwise, Mr. Sharon says there is no chance that he will rescind his dismissals of four cabinet ministers and three deputies from Shas and two deputy ministers from United Torah Judaism.

The dismissals are to go into effect Wednesday, and Mr. Sharon says he will not negotiate with the factions until after the re-vote.

One of Mr. Sharon's cabinet ministers, Ruby Rivlin, says that the prime minister has called the bluff of the religious factions and they are now likely to vote in support of Mr. Sharon.

"They are very much worried and I really believe that the Prime Minister with a firm position, will find in the end that he is the same Knesset, in a better condition," he said.

The loss of the two religious parties would leave Mr. Sharon with 60 supporters in the 120 member Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

This could put the government at risk during future no-confidence motions, where a single defector could force early elections.

But Mr. Sharon appears confident that he will be able to bring some parties now in opposition into the government if the two religious factions refuse to back down.

Among the likely contenders is the six-member Shinnui faction, a secular party often at odds with religious factions in the Knesset.

Mr. Sharon is also counting on the left-leaning Labor Party to help him get a majority during the re-vote on the budget measures.

Only half of the Labor faction supported the economic plan during the first vote on Monday.

But Labor Party leaders are expected to use party discipline in the second round to ensure that all party members support the budget.