Jerusalem, Oct. 28 (Reuters): Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faced a deepening rift with his main coalition partner over funding for Jewish settlements today, raising the prospect he will be forced to call early elections.
The impasse with Israel’s Labour Party was Sharon’s most serious political challenge since he came to power 19 months ago in the early stages of a Palestinian uprising that he has failed to quell despite campaign pledges to restore security.
Labour leader and Israeli defence minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said today his Centre-Left party was certain to vote against Israel’s 2003 state budget unless Sharon shifted some money earmarked for settlements to social programmes.
The Right-wing Prime Minister and long-standing settlement supporter threatened yesterday to dismiss any ministers who rejected the budget. Such a move would shatter his “national unity” coalition and set the stage for possible elections in January, nine months ahead of schedule.
The cracks in Sharon’s broad-based government appeared at a time when Israel is trying to cement a united front in the face of US pressure to rein in West Asia violence while Washington pursues Arab support for a possible war on Iraq.
The international community largely regards the settlements, built in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on land occupied by Israeli forces in the 1967 West Asia war, as illegal.