Despite the opposition of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the Likud faction approved Monday night a proposal that will facilitate the passage of both the 2005 state budget and a bill mandating a national referendum on the disengagement plan.
According to the proposal, submitted by coalition chairman Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar, the anti-disengagement Likud rebels on the Knesset Finance Committee - who have announced they will vote against the budget when it comes before the finance committee Tuesday - will be removed from the panel ahead of the vote to ensure the passage of the state budget.
Sharon opposes the second part of the proposal, whereby Likud MKs on the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee will be taken off that panel unless they plan to vote for a bill mandating a referendum.
The proposal, which was approved in a 16-11 vote, grants Sharon a majority in the finance committee and assures the passage of the referendum bill in Wednesday's constitution committee vote. It does not apply to next week's budget and referendum votes in the Knesset plenum.
"This is the only decision the Likud faction could have made to preserve its unity and prevent the party from falling apart," Sa'ar said after the faction vote.
Sharon, however, told the faction meeting that the Likud has already split in two and said there is a concern that "in the coming elections we will run as a single faction with two heads, as some speak in favor of disengagement and some are against."
Earlier Monday, Sa'ar quit as coalition chairman when Sharon rejected his proposal, but rescinded his resignation after the prime minister agreed to allow Likud MKs to vote their conscience on the budget and the referendum. However, the Likud faction ignored Sharon's wishes and voted for Sa'ar's proposal in any case.
By law, if the budget is not passed by the end of the month, the government will fall. At present, the government cannot field a majority in the committee, due to continuing objections posed by the rebels.
Some anti-disengagement activists view toppling the government as one of the few ways to foil Sharon's planned evacuation of settlements in the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank.
At the beginning of the faction meeting, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there was no choice but to remove the rebels from the finance committee.
His remarks were an endorsement of a proposal made by Minister Meir Sheetrit earlier Monday, ahead of Sa'ar's compromise proposal.
Meanwhile, Shas chairman MK Eli Yishai said after meeting with Sharon on Monday evening that the prime minister had not persuaded him to vote for the budget or abstain from the vote.
"We consider it final. We will vote against the budget if there is no major change" that would siphon money toward children, the hungry and single mothers, Yishai said.