Shinui Ready to Return to Gov't if Labor Leaves Over Budget

Election of new party head could speed Labor's departure; Lapid refused to comment on Ultra-religious UTJ.

If the Labor Party leaves the coalition after the disengagement plan is implemented, as some have suggested, it will not necessarily mean an end to the Sharon government and the holding of new elections. Shinui leader Yosef Lapid says that his party is prepared to return to the government if Labor quits for budgetary rather than political/diplomatic reasons. This message was recently conveyed by Shinui leaders to senior Likud activists.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's advisers want to delay elections as long as possible for fear that the Likud Central Committee will choose someone else to head the party. That is why they have been investigating whether Shinui and the National Religious Party )NRP( are likely candidates to rejoin the government in the autumn.

Three circumstances could hasten Labor's departure: The election of a new party head in place of Vice Premier Shimon Peres; a 2006 budget that reflects what Peres called Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's "swinish capitalism"; or a tougher attitude on the part of Sharon toward the Palestinians with a view to improving his election chances in the Likud.

"I have no problem returning to the government if Labor leaves because it opposes the next budget," Lapid told Haaretz. "We support Netanyahu's economic policies. ... but," he said, "if Labor leaves for political reasons connected with the peace process, Shinui will not be able to replace it in the government. We are no less committed to the peace process than Labor."

He said that if Shinui was invited to return, Shinui's decision would not be affected by electoral considerations. "We are in a situation where the number of mandates we get is not affected by being in the coalition or the opposition."

Lapid did not say what his party would demand with regard to United Torah Judaism (UTJ), a partner in Sharon's coalition and a Shinui bete noire.

Political observers believe it would be extremely difficult for Sharon to reshuffle his cabinet a year before the end of the government's term. From the numbers point of view, it would be possible since Sharon could possibly win back the Likud rebels, who want to remain in the Knesset, by announcing that he does not plan another disengagement.

With 40 Likud MKs, 14 from Shinui, four from the NRP and five from UTJ, as well as two or three independents, he could have a majority of at least 65. Theoretically, this would make it possible for him to finish his term in October 2006. If after the disengagement, Sharon publicly stands behind Netanyahu's budget policy, he could get Labor to leave and perhaps pull this scenario off.