The more the situation of Ariel Sharon improves on the international front, and the faster Mahmoud Abbas is willing to deliver the goods, the shakier becomes Sharon's situation within his party. The refusal front in his party is willing to do anything to prevent any possibility of an agreement and of calm.
But the pressures and maneuvers of Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not stop the process. Sharon will not be enticed into conducting a national referendum. He understands that the referendum will delay the process, intensify the hatred and the incitement, and broaden the rift in the nation. Even the settlers' demonstrations and the threats will not stop him. Only one thing can stop everything: the budget. Because if Sharon doesn't succeed in passing the budget by March 31, the elections will be moved up to June 28. That's the law.
That is why it is so difficult to understand Shinui's position. The leaders of the party repeatedly say that they were among the first to support the disengagement, but despite that, they will vote against the budget, because United Torah Judaism received NIS 290 million in return for joining the coalition. NIS 290 million compared to the historic opportunity to end the bloodshed and to open a new leaf in the Middle East - is it possible?
The dream of Shinui chair Yosef Lapid is to combine business and pleasure. He would like Shas to do his dirty work and reach an agreement with the Likud, which will give Shas several hundred million shekels in exchange for abstaining in the vote on the budget. That way the budget will pass and the disengagement will be carried out. That's the business part. Afterward, the time for pleasure will come, when Lapid attacks the Likud and Labor for "their shameful surrender to the ultra-Orthodox" and attacks the ultra-Orthodox "who can always be bought off."
But where is the sense of responsibility? Are Lapid and his friends willing to gamble in this way on Israel's future? How dare they sit on the sidelines and wait for others to rescue the disengagement?
At the end of November, the leaders of Shinui made a major political blunder. They reached the conclusion that the departure of the right and the nonentry of the left would force Sharon to move up the elections, and that therefore it was best for them to leave the government as quickly as possible. Public opinion polls at the time gave them no more than 10 seats, which was a decline of one-third in their strength, and they estimated that going to the opposition would enable them to return to the anti-Haredi rhetoric, and thus to bring the voters back home.
Lapid knows that his voters remember that he didn't succeed in passing the civil partnership agreement (for those who cannot marry according to Jewish religious law) or in canceling the Tal Law (which exempts yeshiva students from most military service). Therefore he was afraid that transferring NIS 290 million to the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) would be the last straw for his electorate.
But instead of drawing out the negotiations with Sharon for weeks and months, and explaining the views and achievements of Shinui to the public, the entire process was short and quick. Shinui was dismissed from the government within a week after presenting its ultimatum, and who today even remembers what Shinui did in the government and why it was dismissed?
But Shinui did a great deal in the government. The disengagement plan passed in the government thanks to Shinui. Netanyahu admits that without Shinui he would not have been able to pass his liberal economic policy: the budget cutback, the reforms, the reduction of payments to yeshiva students, the cutbacks in welfare allowances, sending people out into the job market and the tax cuts. With the help of Shinui, the economy emerged from the economic crisis and moved toward growth and a decline in unemployment.
Shinui also brought a new atmosphere to the ministries where it served, an atmosphere of practical administration and a statesmanlike approach, without political appointments. The plans to merge and rehabilitate the local councils could only have been implemented under interior minister Avraham Poraz, and this was the first time that a liberal atmosphere prevailed in the ministry, instead of benighted fanaticism, so that thousands of people acquired permanent resident status after many years of suffering and discrimination.
But who remembers? The only thing the public remembers is that Shinui left in the midst of the battle, because of a miserable NIS 290 million, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the billions the government will lay out to pay for the disengagement.
Therefore, to save Shinui's honor to some extent, Lapid must change his policy. He must declare as soon as possible that the 14 members of Shinui will vote in favor of the budget, or at least will abstain - and thus make the disengagement possible. The moment he makes such a declaration, he will take the air out of Shas' balloon in one fell swoop. Shas' price in the political market will decline drastically, the state will save hundreds of thousands of shekels, and there will no longer be a danger of Sharon having to surrender to the demands of Shas, thus canceling all the achievements of Shinui, such as the equalization of the child allowances (meaning that a family receives the same allowance for each child, rather than receiving more starting from the fifth child).
The leaders of Shinui say that they are somewhat different from ordinary politicians, that they are more statesmanlike, ethical and Zionist. Let them prove that now. This is the moment of truth.
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