Israel's Sharon fires ministers, shatters coalition
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sacked his main coalition partner on Wednesday after a humiliating parliamentary defeat that left him scrambling to avoid early elections and save his Gaza withdrawal plan.
In a twin political drama on the other side of Middle East divide, jailed West Bank leader Marwan Barghouthi decided to run in a Palestinian presidential election and Hamas militants vowed to boycott the Jan. 9 vote to choose Yasser Arafat's successor.
Sharon dismissed the Shinui party shortly after it defied him by voting against the 2005 state budget in a first reading in parliament, and aides said he would immediately approach the center-left Labour Party to prevent his government's collapse.
The parliamentary mutiny marked the sharpest threat to Sharon's grip on power since he was re-elected in January 2003 in a crushing victory driven by popular support for his tough handling of a Palestinian uprising.
After a stormy Knesset session, Sharon summoned Shinui ministers to his office, handed them their dismissal notices and told them: "It was nice working with you."
The ouster of Shinui, a secularist party that broke with Sharon in anger over spending pledges he made to a religious faction, left Sharon's rightist Likud party in control of only 40 of parliament's 120 seats, making his government untenable.
Sharon must now shore up his coalition to avert snap elections two years ahead of schedule and an indefinite delay to his plan for "disengaging" from conflict with Palestinians by removing all settlements from Gaza and a few from the West Bank.
He is expected to try to wrap up a deal by Monday for a "unity government" with Labour to avoid the risk of being toppled by a threatened no-confidence vote over the economy that day, which could set off the countdown to elections.
If Sharon loses a no-confidence ballot, President Moshe Katsav must give him or another party leader up to 44 days to form a majority government. If that fails, a general election must be held within 60 days.
The government must pass the budget, which has been stalled by strong opposition from left wing and religious parties to cutbacks in social spending, by March 31 or resign.
"There will be no elections," Sharon said confidently after it was clear the budget vote would go against him. The austerity spending package was defeated 69-43.
Having the center-left Labour on board would solidify majorities for the budget and Sharon's "Disengagement Plan." But powerful rightist rebels in Likud, bent on scuttling his Gaza plan, have balked at any such "unity coalition."
Sharon aims to remove all 21 settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank in 2005 under a plan backed by Washington.
THREAT OF GOVERNMENT COLLAPSE
Sharon lost his majority earlier this year when ultra-nationalist coalition partners were fired or defected after refusing to accept a pullout from the Gaza Strip.
Shinui backs the Gaza plan. But it mutinied over Sharon's promise of 290 million shekels ($64 million) in subsidies to projects of an ultra-Orthodox religious party in exchange for votes needed for preliminary approval of the budget.
Labour is parliament's second largest group with 22 seats and backs giving up land to Palestinians in pursuit of peace.
Likud's hardline Central Committee forced Sharon last August to suspend talks with Labour in hopes of thwarting any retreat from lands occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
But Sharon hoped that Likud rebels, facing public distaste at any prospect of a third national vote in less than four years and a consistent pro-pullout majority in opinion polls, would relent on Labour rather than risk elections.
Palestinian politics were also thrown into disarray.
Barghouthi's candidacy as an independent dashed expectations of almost certain victory by the nominee of the dominant Fatah faction, Mahmoud Abbas, an elderly former Arafat deputy whose only other challengers were fringe figures.
Barghouthi, charismatic leader of Fatah's younger generation seeking democratic reform blocked by Arafat, told his wife during a visit to his Israeli prison cell to register him as a candidate in the Jan. 9 election. She did so before the midnight (2200 GMT) deadline to file required papers.
Palestinian officials originally said last Thursday that Barghouthi, 45, had decided to run. But after he came under pressure from Fatah officials worried about a split in their movement, he had opted on Friday to drop his candidacy.
It was not clear why he changed his mind once again, but one senior Fatah official condemned it as an "assault on Fatah."
Israeli troops arrested Barghouthi in 2002 and he was sentenced to five life terms last June after being convicted of ordering militant attacks that killed five Israelis. He denied involvement, saying he was a political leader only.
Israel has ruled out any early release of Barghouthi.