Fear of Frightening February

Unless Sharon decides to postpone the budget vote until March, the moment of truth will occur next month, when everyone will have to face cruel reality.

Israeli politics these days can be compared to a pressure cooker left simmering on the stove, with beads of water slowly condensing on its sides and a bubbling sound emanating from within. Ostensibly, everything is going fine. There is a new government, and all of its senior ministers were abroad this week. Exhausting coalition negotiations between the Likud and Shas are continuing at a lazy pace. There are routine votes at the Knesset. In short, there is not much drama. But within two or perhaps three weeks, at the most, everything could explode if someone does not turn off the heat, and the current, uninteresting period could become a distant and faint memory.

Here is the situation: In about 10 days, the Evacuation Compensations Bill will be presented for its second and third readings in the Knesset. The bill will pass, thanks to the votes of Yahad and Shinui. Several days later, the government will approve the evacuation. A week after this, the 2005 state budget will come before the Knesset for a vote. The ostensible deadline for its approval is March 31, but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has declared that he does not intend to wait until then. It is clear to all that the budget approval will pave the way - formally, legally and practically - for the implementation of the disengagement. Failure to approve the budget will bring down the government and lead to new elections within about three months. In this scenario, it is clear that the disengagement would be postponed.

As of now, Sharon lacks a majority to pass the budget. There are 13 members of his own Likud party who are conditioning their support for the budget on a disengagement referendum. If Shas does not join the government, Sharon's coalition will number only 53-54 MKs. He will need the support of all six Yahad MKs and the abstention of two Arab MKs for his government to survive - just as he needed them to establish the government. Yahad's official stance is that it will vote against the budget. In off-the-record conversations, several Yahad officials admit that they cannot allow themselves to play into the hands of the settlers. With a little flexibility on the part of Sharon and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a responsible Yahad will vote in favor. Yossi Sarid says that he will vote against the budget in any case.

What will happen if Yahad and Arab MKs again save Sharon - will Likud members agree to swallow this bitter pill? Perhaps. "The budget is a different story," explains a Likud minister, who in the past has strongly and unequivocally condemned "the reliance on votes of the left and the Arabs." According to him, "the budget is always passed in deals with the opposition."

It depends on Sharon

Only the addition of Shas would solve all the problems. It would make the Likud rebels irrelevant and would give Sharon a full year to complete the disengagement. But Shas chairman Eli Yishai is playing hard to get. He is insisting on canceling the cutbacks in child allowances, though he is fully aware that Sharon and Netanyahu cannot deliver this. They will give him a lot, but not something that constitutes the foundation of Netanyahu's economic policy.

Why is Yishai insisting so much on something that he cannot attain? There is no doubt that his battle for the child allowances yields dividends with regards to his constituency, whether he is ultimately successful or not. But is he fighting over the allowances because he wants to remain outside of the coalition, or is he striking a tough bargaining position in order ultimately to win gains that far surpass the Labor Party's NIS 600 million and United Torah Judaism's NIS 290 million? Yishai knows that he is in a very strong bargaining position. He knows that Sharon is in trouble without him and he is conducting tough negotiations. This week, after Education Minister Limor Livnat presented Rabbi Ovadia Yosef with a compromise proposal that seemed to be acceptable to both sides, and evinced warm words from the rabbi, Yishai announced that he has no intention of relenting on the child allowance issue: "Meals at schools do not solve any problem," he said.

He did not, however, rule out the possibility of Shas helping Sharon pass the budget from outside the coalition - for the right price, even if the cuts in child allowances are not canceled.

If an accord is not reached with Shas and if the Likud rebels persist in their rebellion, Sharon will need help from the opposition. He could approach Shinui and asked this former coalition partner to abstain. Sharon's associates have mentioned this possibility. After all, most Shinui voters support the disengagement. But MK Avraham Poraz said this week that nothing of the sort would happen. "We left the government because of the NIS 290 million transferred to UTJ," he said. "How could we support a budget over which we quit?"

And what about the disengagement? "That's Sharon's problem," Poraz said. "We'll vote in favor of everything directly related to the disengagement, but we'll vote against the budget. If he wants us to support it, he should remove UTJ and then we'd be ready to provide him with a security net from the outside, through the end of the term."

February will be a dramatic month - unless the prime minister decides to postpone the budget vote until March. It will be the moment of truth, when e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e will have to face the cruel reality and its decisions. The Likud rebels will have to decide whether to topple the government or lend a hand to the disengagement. Three Likud ministers, who before the previous vote wavered and agonized - Netanyahu, Silvan Shalom and Livnat - will have to decide this time who and what they are: supporters or opponents of the disengagement. If the three ministers vote against the budget, the government would collapse.

Shalom sent a message to Sharon yesterday. In an interview with Israel Radio's Washington correspondent, Yaron Dekel, the foreign minister said there can be no disengagement without Shas and that new elections would become more likely: "And everything depends on one man - Sharon." Not Eli Yishai. Not Rabbi Ovadia. Sharon.

Yahad will face a choice: to vote against the budget and torpedo the disengagement, or to grit their teeth and vote in favor of Netanyahu's budget. Shinui will face a similar choice. The most difficult dilemma of all and the greatest gamble will be Ariel Sharon's. According to his close associates, Sharon will not blink or stutter, and will not look left or right. He will not agree to a referendum, despite the increasing pressures, and he will not destroy the economic policy. He will bring the budget to a vote immediately after the Knesset Finance Committee completes the preparatory work. And let the chips fall where they may.

Sarid boycotts

During his decades of experience in politics, Yossi Sarid has said everything, written everything and delivered speeches on everything. But it is difficult to recall him saying that something hurt him. And this is not because no one ever insulted him. For example, Ehud Barak insulted him when he told Sarid he could not take him to Camp David because there was no bed for him there. Sarid has admitted this on a number of occasions, including on journalist Menachem Horowitz's television program this week. But Sarid, in general, is not the type who easily takes offense or boycotts anything.

Sarid told his fellow Yahad MKs this week that he does not plan to participate in the faction's meetings, at least for a few weeks. Faction meetings are a sacred parliamentary institution - not only for Yahad, but for every other political party, too. These meetings are where the faction determines its stance on every issue. Everyone attends. Always.

"I'm become tired of you," Sarid said. "And you've become tired of me." (According to another version, which Sarid denies, he said: "I'm fed up with you, and you're fed up with me.")

The background for this is Sarid's abstention in the vote on establishing the government two weeks ago, contrary to the position of his Yahad colleagues (who voted to support the government), and the great quarrel that ensued between Sarid and his successor as party chairman, Yossi Beilin. Sarid is convinced that everything was planned so that he would be portrayed as the bad guy in this story. "I was hurt," he says. "I read afterward that my shadow is weighing upon them. I decided to lift my shadow from them for several weeks and during this time consult with myself about how to trim the dimensions of my shadow. Perhaps I'll also consult with experts on shadows."

One does not require an especially sensitive ear to discern a hinted threat of resignation or retirement here, but Sarid says that this is not the case. "I read that everything for me is personal, that everything is aimed against Yossi Beilin," he says sarcastically. "True, when I wake in the morning and lie down at night, I have Yossi Beilin on my mind, but this is not what I was focusing on then, as I entered the Knesset plenum." (During the vote on establishing the government, Sarid entered the plenum toward the end of the voting and abstained.)

"I read in the newspapers that my friends in Meretz don't like that I do what I please," Sarid said this week. "When I left the Labor Party and joined Meretz I was also doing what I wanted to, but then they were quite pleased." He added that he does not fear becoming a bitter person, constantly feeling insulted, a serial boycotter. He is truly tired of them. And besides, he will be very busy during the coming weeks. He is publishing two books of poetry and will be teaching civics classes in a high school in Sderot. His first lesson there, coincidentally, is scheduled for next Monday at 2:30 in the afternoon - precisely the hour the Yahad faction meeting convenes. And no, he does not plan to refrain from speaking on the Knesset floor.

On Wednesday, he brought tears to the eyes of several MKs when he spoke during the session marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. "Despite everything," he says with satisfaction, "he still asks me to speak at every discussion." The "he" Sarid is referring to is Yossi Beilin.