PM Fails to Budge Shas in Vote on Dispersing Knesset

Shas yesterday rejected Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's offer of benefits totaling NIS 1.5 billion in exchange for not voting in favor of a bill to disperse the Knesset, whose preliminary reading is tomorrow.

After Labor's decision yesterday to support the bill, the balance of power indicates that the bill could pass by a majority of 70 MKs, making Shas the decisive vote.

Olmert, with the assistance of Vice Premier Haim Ramon, is pressuring Shas leaders to stop the move to dissolve the House.

Olmert held a lengthy meeting yesterday with Shas' chairman, Industry Trade and Employment Minister Eli Yishai, proposing a benefits package for the poor to counter Shas' demand for child allowances to be increased in exchange for its opposing vote on the Knesset bill.

Finance Minister Roni Bar-On said yesterday he would resign if child allowances were increased.

Among the benefits Olmert offered are expansion of the Wisconsin Plan, additional income tax credits for the poor and funding for vocational training.

However, Yishai told Olmert that if child allowances were not increased, Shas would vote for dissolving the House.

The intense courting of Shas, which also included a Yishai-Ramon meeting, has reportedly been a cause of concern for Labor's chair, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who realizes that without Shas, the move to disperse the Knesset will collapse. Barak also spoke with Yishai to learn whether he was leaning toward changing his position, and Yishai assured him that as long as child allowances were not increased, he would not budge.

Sources in Shas said efforts to woo the party away from voting for dissolving the Knesset would continue right up to tomorrow's vote.

The prime minister offered us alternatives that do not satisfy us, for example, additional afternoon day-care instead of the allowances," Yishai told Haaretz after his meeting with Olmert. Yishai said that without increased child allowances, "the decision of the Council of Torah Sages [for Shas] to resign from the cabinet stands."

United Torah Judaism's lawmakers are in favor of the bill except for MK Avraham Ravitz, who said: "The alternatives to the present government are not glorious from the point of view of UTJ's demands."