Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon narrowly survived three parliamentary no-confidence votes Monday, but faces still stiffer opposition later this week in a crucial budget vote. There is much at stake from Mr. Sharon's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, to the survival of his shaky coalition government itself.
Opposition parties sponsored three separate no-confidence motions in the parliament (Knesset), all critical of the government's handling of the economy. And, even though the opposition actually won two of the motions it could not muster the 61-vote majority required to pass a no-confidence measure and topple the government.
Mr. Sharon's Likud Party and its coalition partners from the Shinui party voted against the motions and the small left-wing Yahad coalition abstained, and so the prime minister squeaked by. Yahad said its members strongly support Mr. Sharon's plan to withdraw soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip and therefore did not want to help topple his government.
The opposition Labor Party also supports the Gaza withdrawal plan and yet its members voted for the no-confidence motions. The party said it had no choice after last week's report by the National Insurance Institute, which found that 22 percent of Israelis lived below the poverty line in 2003. The opposition blames government policies and cuts in social spending and welfare benefits for the rise in poverty.
Labor Party Knesset member Yitzhak Herzog explains.
"Last week's facts regarding the increase in poverty and the social gap in Israel could not leave us indifferent," he said. "We had to take a step and this is the political step we are taking."
But, at the same time, the Labor Party is still weighing the possibility of joining a new Sharon coalition if the Prime Minister decides to reshuffle his government.
And, that could well be in the works. Mr. Sharon has been governing with a minority coalition for some months due to defections over his controversial Gaza withdrawal plan. Until now, the Labor Party has provided what has turned out to be a "safety net" for the prime minister by voting with Likud in the Knesset.
In order to shore up his parliamentary support, Mr. Sharon has been wooing two small religious parties, offering them increased funding in return for their support. And that has angered his coalition partners in the secular Shinui party who are now threatening to vote against the 2005 budget when it comes up for a first reading in the Knesset on Wednesday. The prime minister responded by threatening to fire any ministers who vote against the budget. If Shinui is forced out, Mr. Sharon would need to seek a new coalition.
If the Knesset does not pass the 2005 budget by the end of March, Mr. Sharon's government automatically falls, paving the way for early elections. All the while, Mr. Sharon's disengagement plan from Gaza would be on hold indefinitely.