Sharon Clinches Deal With Shas To Gain Knesset Majority

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Sharon Clinches Deal With Shas To Gain Knesset Majority
Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon looks set to meet his Wednesday deadline for presenting his government to the Knesset, after his coalition negotiating team initialed a deal with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party Sunday night giving him a parliamentary majority of 64 seats.

Shas Chairman Eli Yishai is to serve as interior minister and deputy prime minister and foreign minister when Sharon and Shimon Peres are abroad; the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party has been awarded a total of five Cabinet posts, as well as a new ministry for Jerusalem issues. In Yishai's words, "We got everything we fought over with the Barak government." Sharon still wants to widen the coalition base before Wednesday, partly because not all the Labor MKs are expected to vote in favor.

The chairman of the National Religious Party, Yitzhak Levy, announced Monday that the NRP will not join the unity government, but will vote in favor on Wednesday. Levy, who was tapped to be Housing and Construction Minister, said that Sharon and the Likud had refused to give the NRP the authority the party had enjoyed in Prime Minister Ehud Barak's government.

Gesher chairman David Levy also announced that he does not intend to join Sharon's government, as he has not been offered an operational position. Levy said that he does not know whether his faction will support Sharon's proposed government.

The Likud's concession of the Interior Ministry to Shas also appears to have jeopardized any chances of Yisrael B'Aliyah joining the coalition, although negotiations are still underway, and party leader Natan Sharansky pledged his support in Wednesday's vote. Coalition talks with United Torah Judaism are still stymied over the Tal bill on yeshiva draft deferrals, although the party is soon to take over the chair of the all-powerful Knesset Finance Committee.

The coalition now includes: 23 MKs from Labor, 19 from the Likud, 17 from Shas, 4 from Yisrael Beitenu and possibly former Center Party MKs Dalia Rabin-Pelesof, who has been offered the deputy defense post, and Roni Milo and Dan Meridor. Milo is seeking to head a future Information Ministry and Meridor is keen to return to the Justice Ministry, ARMY RADIO reported. Both men are former Likudniks who once anchored the party's centrist wing. As members of the Barak government, they opposed concessions on Jerusalem. Milo and Sharon have reportedly agreed in principle that Milo would be responsible for public relations, especially in the international sphere, and would work with foreign minister-designate Shimon Peres.

The resignation from politics on Monday of Center party MKs Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Uri Savir will bring in two more right-leaning MKs, Nehama Ronen, a former member of Tzomet, and former Likud MK David Magen.

Concerning the evolving Likud line-up, ISRAEL RADIO reported Sunday that Limor Livnat would become the internal security minister, Silvan Shalom finance minister, Reuven Rivlin communications minister, Tzippi Livni justice minister, and Meir Sheetrit education minister. The report said that one of the Likud's ministries without portfolio would be given to Dan Naveh, who would then be in charge of coordination between the government and the Knesset.

Sunday's terrorist attack in Netanya hastened talks with Shas. The agreement still requires the final approval of Shas's Council of Torah Sages, but if approved, Shlomo Benizri will receive the Labor and Social Affairs portfolio, Eli Suissa will be health minister, Shas secretary-general Asher Ohana religious affairs minister, and Nissim Dahan will receive a portfolio inside the Prime Minister's Office with responsibility for Jerusalem affairs.

Shas compromised in agreeing to have three and not four deputy ministers, one of which will be deputy education minister, with full control over the private Shas school system. According to the agreement, a religious broadcasting council will be set up in the Religious Affairs Ministry, which would grant permission for a third broadcasting channel, thereby legalizing Shas's pirate radio stations.

Shas agreed to delay negotiations on the Direct Election Law until after the government is formed. Shas would like to see the law retained for the next election, while most MKs in Likud and Labor want it rescinded. Shas's initial demands also included the promotion of one of their MKs to coalition whip, and a representative on the committee that appoints judges.

The National Union has backed out of a deal the Likud signed Friday with its joint Yisrael Beiteinu faction, after its leader Rehavam Ze'evi rejected the Tourism portfolio. The deal gave the National Infrastructure portfolio to Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, and the chairmanship of the Knesset House Committee to MK Benny Elon in rotation with Labor.

Sharon sent a letter late last week to National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu leaders affirming Israel's right to complete sovereignty in Jerusalem. Such a unified Jerusalem pledge does not appear in the policy guidelines drafted earlier by Likud and Labor unity government negotiators. The letter also states that only peace agreements signed by the Knesset are valid, and that negotiations will not be conducted under fire.

Meanwhile, the Likud is trying to rally a majority in the Knesset to pass a first reading of the 2001 state budget bill, and is also working on a new budget that it will present to the Knesset later this spring. The new coalition members have raised demands for some NIS 13-15 billion from such a new budget and Sharon's team will have to work hard to reduce that figure. If by March 31, the Knesset has not passed a budget, the house automatically dissolves in preparation for new elections.

Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.

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