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Israeli Political Crisis Ends Coalition

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Israeli political crisis ends coalition

Collapse of government could hamper U.S. diplomacy in region

MSNBC NEWS SERVICES

JERUSALEM, Oct. 30 — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s hard-line government crumbled Wednesday after Labor Party ministers submitted their resignations in a dispute over funding for Jewish settlements. Sharon told parliament he would continue to lead the country, suggesting he would try to govern with a narrow coalition of far-right and religious parties. But if that effort fails, the Israeli leader could call early elections, a move that would hamper U.S. peace efforts in the region as Washington ramps up for war against Iraq.

THE CRISIS ended an uneasy 20-month partnership that had been formed to steer the country at a time of intense conflict with the Palestinians. The political turmoil could sabotage U.S. efforts to win support for a three-phase peace plan that envisions Palestinian statehood by 2005.

Last-minute efforts Wednesday to reach a compromise over the settlements failed, and Labor said it would vote against a 2003 draft budget. Labor ministers were demanding a $145 million cut in funding for the settlements — a key stumbling block in Mideast peace talks — but Sharon refused.

The vote was put to parliament after the Labor ministers resigned, and it passed anyway with the support of parties outside the coalition — as expected — by a 67-45 vote; it must pass two more readings in coming weeks before it is final.

Under Israeli law, the resignations only take effect within 48 hours, leaving room for last-ditch maneuvers — but politicians from both sides assessed that Sharon’s “unity government” was at an end.

“We must fight terror, but this is the day when we have to present a diplomatic horizon,” said Defense Minister and Labor Party leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. “The prime minister is unable to present a diplomatic horizon.”

WASHINGTON STANDS BACK

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who led Labor for much of the past two decades and has been a key supporter of the unity government, tried to convince Ben-Eliezer to back down. Peres then resigned along with Ben-Eliezer and four other Labor Party ministers.

In Washington, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said: “The United States views the events in Israel as part of Israel’s internal democratic process, and we have no comment beyond that.”

If the resignations go through, Sharon would face the difficult choice of trying to stay afloat with the support of an array of extreme-right and religious parties.

Israeli elections would delay implementation of the U.S.-backed peace plan. If Sharon continues to govern, his far-right partners would likely object to many of the provisions, such as a settlement freeze and a significant Israeli troop pullback.

Developments on the Palestinian side also suggested the peace plan would run into problems. The proposal calls for sweeping reforms of the Palestinian government and the security services. However, the Palestinians signaled Tuesday that they would settle for more modest changes; parliament approved a new Cabinet that was largely unchanged, with only three new ministers.

STORMY SESSION

Throughout Wednesday, there were efforts to avert the breakup of the coalition. Sharon and Ben-Eliezer met for three hours in a parliament conference room. Shouts were heard from the room, and at one point, an angry Ben-Eliezer stormed out, only to return later.

“For this, you are breaking up the national unity government?” Sharon told a stormy session of the assembly. “Enough, there is a limit to contempt.”

“We did everything possible to preserve the government,” said Finance Minister Silvan of Sharon’s Likud Party. “But to my great regret there were those who believed that this was the time to break up the government.”

Labor legislator Haim Ramon, who is challenging Ben-Eliezer for party leadership in Nov. 17 primaries, praised the decision. “I’m happy that we will not be partners in a government that is a failure in all aspects of life,” Ramon said. “We need to leave the government and present an alternative.”

CHRONICALLY UNSTABLE

Ben-Eliezer’s critics have accused him of creating an artificial crisis. The sum at issue — a cut of $145 million in settlement funding demanded by Labor — represents only 0.3 percent of overall spending. At the same time, Labor primaries are only three weeks away, and Ben-Eliezer is trailing two more dovish challengers. Leaving the government over a settlement dispute could boost his standing among dovish party members.

Labor joined forces with the hard-line Sharon after he routed their candidate in prime ministerial elections 20 months ago. The party was widely expected to bolt the coalition before November 2003 to try to position itself as a moderate alternative to Sharon.

Israel’s coalition governments are chronically unstable and plagued by internal fighting. No government has completed its full term since the 1980s, and the country has had five prime ministers in the past seven years.

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