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Tuesday, 21 May, 2002, 09:23 GMT 10:23 UK
Sackings spark Israel political crisis
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - in the Israeli parliament 15 May 2002
Sharon still holds onto a majority in parliament
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government of national unity has run into a serious crisis after he sacked four ministers from a key coalition party, the ultra-Orthodox party Shas.


We wish [Sharon] luck if he thinks he can go to elections without Shas or other ultra-Orthodox parties

Fired Shas minister Shlomo Binizri
The four Shas ministers and several deputy ministers from the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party, another ultra-Orthodox grouping, were dismissed for not backing an economic austerity plan introduced to pay for the recent military offensive against the Palestinians.

Under Israeli law, the sackings come into effect after 48 hours.

At that point Mr Sharon could find himself leading a minority government, with increased dependence on Labor coalition colleagues - who take a softer line on the conflict with the Palestinians.

Mr Sharon already faces pressure from his own Likud party which last week backed his leadership rival Binyamin Netanyahu in a vote ruling out a Palestinian state in the occupied territories.

Israeli commentators say that Mr Sharon is now vulnerable to a no confidence vote that could trigger elections.

Belt-tightening

Mr Sharon's economic proposals would have cut welfare spending and increased taxes, but were rejected in a vote on Monday night.

graffic showing knesset breakdown
The $2.7-billion package called for widening the budget deficit to 3.9% of gross domestic product from 3%, amid government warnings that the deficit could hit 6% and affect Israel's credit rating if the plan was not adopted.

Correspondents say Shas and UTJ baulked at the withdrawal of special government subsidies for Orthodox religious students, who do not have to serve in the Israeli armed forces.

Support from Shas - which represents lower income ultra-Orthodox Jews of Middle Eastern origin - has been crucial to successive Israeli governments since 1992.

Israeli armoured personnel carriers near Ramallah
Israel has overspent on the military budget
The austerity measures were rejected by 47 votes to 44 in the Knesset, where Shas and UTJ argued that they would disproportionately affect their supporters.

Away from the Knesset, Mr Sharon's public approval rating remains high after a five-week offensive against the Palestinians in the West Bank.

Shas defiant

Mr Sharon fired the four ministers who failed to support him during the stormy session. Shas' fifth minister - who missed the vote - resigned in solidarity with his colleagues.


Unfortunately the Knesset reacted in a partisan manner and some people protested only against the part that affected their particular sphere of interest

Finance Minister Sylvan Shalom
"We welcome his decision," one fired Shas minister, Shlomo Binizri, told Army Radio. "We wish him all the luck if he thinks he can go to elections without Shas or other ultra-Orthodox parties."

Finance Minister Sylvan Shalom said the austerity plan remained the best for Israel and would be resubmitted on Wednesday.

"Unfortunately the Knesset reacted in a partisan manner and some people protested only against the part that affected their particular sphere of interest," he said.

If Mr Sharon fails to mend the rift before Wednesday night, his coalition will drop from 85 seats to 60 seats in the 120-member chamber.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Claire Marshall
"The move effectively leaves Mr Sharon with only 60 members in his coalition"
Likud party central committee member Zalman Shoval
"There's already been talk of early elections"
Former foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami
"He (Sharon) is riding on a very high wave of popularity right now"

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30 Oct 00 | Middle East
09 Jan 02 | Business
11 Apr 01 | Media reports
21 May 02 | Middle East
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