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October 30, 2002

Labor Quits Government
(Arutz Sheva) The national unity government was dismantled this evening - Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer submitted his resignation just before 6 PM this evening - but the national budget passed its first reading in the Knesset tonight, 67-45. The Labor Party MKs voted against it, leaving them no way back to return to the government. This is due to the fact that Prime Minister Sharon made it clear that a nay vote against the budget by coalition members is akin to leaving the government. In order to avoid being fired, the Labor ministers handed in their resignations this evening. The government still stands, but no longer as a "unity" government, as one of the two major parties is not a member.

Both Likud and Labor blamed the other for refusing to agree on just "one word" in a final agreement between the two. Ben-Eliezer demanded that the final agreement stipulate that funds be transferred from "settlements" to other sectors - while Sharon refused to agree to this formulation. Though it appeared that Shimon Peres and other Labor leaders were willing to cede this point and write instead "equality among sectors," Binyamin Ben-Eliezer refused.

Prime Minister Sharon began his Knesset speech this evening by angrily expressing his "tremendous shame" at being involved in discussing "such nonsense" on a day when two teenage girls were being buried after having been murdered by a terrorist. He also noted that the formulation that Ben-Eliezer refused to sign was "almost exactly the wording of the national unity government guidelines." Banging on the rostrum, Sharon asked Ben-Eliezer, "For what are you dismantling this national unity government? For what?!"

MK Michael Eitan (Likud), speaking at the Knesset rostrum this afternoon, said, "It is being said that the government was toppled over one word - and that's true. But the word is not 'settlements,' but rather something else: 'Primaries!'" Eitan thus accused Ben-Eliezer of toppling the national unity government because of his personal interest in winning the upcoming primaries race for Labor Party leader against MK Chaim Ramon and Amram Mitzna. Ben-Eliezer later responded to this charge by saying that all his advisors had recommended that he go to the primaries as Defense Minister (and not as leader of the opposition). Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, also of Labor, then said, "You should switch your advisors."

President Moshe Katzav and Oded Tira, President of the Industrialists Association, were two of many who had called upon Labor to remain in the government at this time of national need. Tira warned that a budget crisis could put Israel's economy into enter a period of total chaos.

The Labor ministers' resignations will go into effect 48 hours after they were submitted. Culture Minister Matan Vilnai, who is not a Knesset Member, will have no official title at all, while the other ministers will retain their status as Knesset Members. Ben-Eliezer will replace Meretz MK Yossi Sarid as opposition leader, as Labor is larger than Meretz. Prime Minister Sharon will have to decide whether to form a narrow right-wing government, or to call new elections.