A powerful Israeli opposition leader reached agreement with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon late Saturday to support the state budget, removing the last major legislative hurdle to Sharon's plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip this summer.
The support from the opposition Shinui Party would ensure Sharon a majority for his budget. Were Sharon to fail to pass his budget by March 31, parliament would automatically be dissolved and new elections would have to be held within three months, delaying and possibly derailing the planned Gaza withdrawal.
Although a majority in parliament has repeatedly supported the Gaza pullout, Sharon's budget faced the combined opposition of rebel lawmakers within his own badly riven Likud Party who are opposed to the planned Gaza withdrawal and other legislators who do not like the budget for fiscal reasons.
But late Saturday night, Sharon met with Joseph Lapid, leader of the opposition Shinui Party, and reached an agreement sealing his party's support for the budget, Lapid told reporters.
"We did it mainly because we didn't want to halt the peace process and disengagement," Lapid said.
Sharon spokesman Assaf Shariv confirmed the agreement, but was cautious about declaring the plan to withdraw from all of Gaza and four settlements in the West Bank a done deal.
"In politics you never know what can happen," he said.
One-third of Sharon's 40-member Likud faction has broken with him over his "disengagement" plan and refused to back him on the budget. On Wednesday, he rebuffed their tit-for-tat offer to vote for the spending plan if he would support a national referendum on the withdrawal, which he has repeatedly rejected as a delaying tactic.
Many Israeli political commentators believed Sharon would get his budget approved, but not before considerable last-minute political horse-trading. "No one has an interest in going to elections," said Yoram Gabbay, a former senior Finance Ministry official.
According to Lapid, Sharon agreed at their meeting Saturday night to put 700 million shekels (US$160 million) from the budget at Shinui's disposal for distribution to its pet causes, including universities, science, arts and conservation. In exchange, Shinui, which has 15 seats in the 120-member Knesset, would back the spending plan, Lapid said.
In the months Sharon has been trying to marshal majority backing for the budget, he has lobbied unlikely political allies who object to the austerity budget on various grounds.
Arab lawmakers have asked for more money for their communities in exchange for abstaining in the budget vote. The dovish Yahad party has signaled it would suppress its distaste for a budget it regards as hurting the underclass in the interest of keeping the Gaza pullout on track.
The government also has tried to court the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which wants more money for social spending, but is not counting on the faction's support, a government official said.
Sharon decided to focus instead on the fiercely secular Shinui, which pulled out of the government last year after Sharon yielded to the budgetary demands of another religious party.
Shinui was considered a weak link in the budget's opposition because it strongly supports the pullout.
"There is nothing we want more," Shinui lawmaker Ehud Rassabi said earlier this week.