Sharon refuses to drop threat of early elections, vows to "bring exactly the same decision to a vote, in one bloc, as I intended today."
By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided on Monday to postpone a fateful Knesset vote on the appointments of Likud ministers by a week, temporarily avoiding a certain defeat that could have led to early elections and a split in his party.
Speaking to the Likud Knesset faction, Sharon said that he decided to accept a request by MK Michael Eitan, who had been working to find a compromise that could allow the appointments to pass. But he said he was still determined to add his allies to the cabinet and he declined to withdraw his threat of advancing the election.
"[Eitan] said he would make an effort to allow the appointments to pass," Sharon said. "I told him that I accept the delay for a week. In a week, I will bring exactly the same decision as I intended today to a vote, in one bloc."
Sharon's appointments of Ehud Olmert as finance minister, Roni Bar-On as industry, trade and labor minister and Ze'ev Boim as immigrant absorption minister were approved by the cabinet on Sunday morning. Cabinet secretary Yisrael Maimon said that the reason for the delay was to hold the vote just ahead of the November 9 deadline when Olmert's interim appointment expires and the country would be left without a finance minister.
"Some would call it Sharon surrendering, but others would call it thinking things through responsibly," Maimon said. "When we tried negotiating with MKs, they said why talk now when there might be a revote next week, so we decided it wasn't worth fighting the same battle twice."
Sharon's associates said they hoped that Binyamin Netanyahu and Sharon's other political opponents realize the damage that could be done to the economy if Olmert's appointment is not approved. They said that if the appointments fail next week, it would be proof that the government cannot function and an election was necessary.
"The Likud rebels are trying to topple the government and send Sharon home," his adviser Eyal Arad told Army Radio. "This is an important test for the Likud faction. If the government cannot function, Sharon will have to reach political conclusions."
Before Sharon's postponement, the Likud rebels met and decided to vote against the appointments. But by the end of the day, they sounded interested in reaching a compromise with Sharon that could lead to them voting in favor in return for commitments on diplomatic and socio-economic issues.
The rebels' demands include immediate action to help the evacuees from Gaza, assurances that Israel will build in the E-1 area between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim and changes in the 2006 state budget proposal to help the underprivileged.
"If everyone in the Likud wants to keep the party unified, I can find the middle-ground, but if people want a split, then the rift cannot be overcome," Eitan said. "I told Sharon, if you are going to lose the vote anyway, then wait a week and give me a chance to work out the differences."
The Knesset hallways were crowded with Likud central committee members who came to lobby MKs to vote for or against the appointments. Netanyahu spoke out against the appointments in the Likud faction meeting.
"Your entire appointment process is improper," he said. "If you come closer to the Likud's principles, you will get support and if you distance yourself from them, I will oppose you. I won't be the leader of the opposition, but I will try to advance the promises that the Likud made to the voters."
Labor Party chairman Shimon Peres said that had Sharon decided not to delay the vote, he would not have recommended toppling the government.
"The government should be toppled over content, not on portfolios," he said.
Peres's main challenger for the Labor leadership, MK Amir Peretz, said that Labor should vote against the appointments next week and should quit the government immediately.
"Arik [Sharon] continues playing with us," Peretz said. "People continue anointing Sharon as the messiah of Israel, but I refuse to play along. Sharon is a man we have to stop supporting. I refuse to sanctify Arik Sharon."
Another candidate, National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, complained about Sharon's decision to give control of the Israel Lands Administration to Tourism Minister Avraham Hirchson and not back to his ministry, where it was until 2003.
"If Sharon appreciated Labor, he wouldn't give the ILA to the tourism minister, as if he will be giving every tourist a parcel of land," he said.