Coalition Still Shaky After Sharon Wins Vote

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won a budget vote in parliament on Wednesday, but the victory left his coalition stripped of its clear majority and vulnerable to collapse.

Sharon won leadership points for sticking to his decision to dismiss the representatives of two key parties from his governing team after they refused to back the budget cutbacks bill in an earlier vote.

The dismissals of ministers and deputy ministers from two Orthodox Jewish parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, went into effect early Thursday, 48 hours after they were delivered.

With the two parties out of the coalition, at least for now, Sharon's team commands only 60 of the 120 seats in parliament. A vote of 61 would bring down Sharon's government in a motion of no confidence at a time when Israel remains engaged in a violent conflict with the Palestinians.

A homicide bomber killed himself and at least two other people late Wednesday in the Israeli city of Rishon Letzion.

Finance Minister Sylvan Shalom said the crisis had stabilized the government by demonstrating that Sharon would not tolerate Cabinet rebellions.

"Israel's government is stronger now than it was two days ago," Shalom said Wednesday. "People know now they are dealing with a new prime minister."

Sharon built his broad team as a show of unity in the face of Palestinian violence, bringing his own hawkish Likud together with its archrival, the dovish Labor, along with smaller parties and the two Orthodox Jewish factions.

A dispute over economics, not the conflict with the Palestinians, set off the crisis. Sharon fired the ministers and deputy ministers after the two parties voted against his plan to cut the state budget, slicing into subsidies and welfare payments for low-income Israelis, main constituents of the Orthodox Jewish parties. On Monday, the bill went down to defeat in a 47-44 vote.

Marshaling their forces after the dismissal letters went out, Sharon and Labor Party Chairman Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the defense minister, saw to it that their minions would fall into line in a new vote Wednesday, and the bill passed, 65-26, in the first of three votes. A parliamentary committee will work on the bill now.

For Sharon, who won a special election in a landslide and put together a broad-based coalition with more than two thirds of the parliament behind him just 14 months ago, the budget victory was bittersweet.

He won widespread praise for cracking down on the two parties, known for thumbing their noses at prime ministers and going their own way in votes, certain that no government can survive without them.

But it left him a coalition with little in common among its parties and without the comfortable parliamentary cushion to assure its long-term survival.

In Wednesday's vote, all 17 Shas legislators and three from United Torah Judaism were absent from the plenum, while two lawmakers from the latter party voted against the bill.

Shas says its decision not to vote against the measure Wednesday, as its ministers did on Monday, was meant as an olive branch to Sharon.

Coalition chairman Zeev Boim told The Associated Press that Sharon had no intention of canceling the letters, although that did not mean that Shas could not rejoin the coalition at some point.

"The prime minister is adamant that the dismissals will go into effect," he said just after Wednesday's vote. "As to what happens after that, in politics anything is possible."