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Rifts show in Israel coalition government

/ Source: The Associated Press

The opposition Labor Party backed a no-confidence motion in the minority government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Monday, sending a warning it would not be taken for granted as a potential coalition partner.

Sharon’s government survived the vote, 55-50, but the motion sharpened the conflict between the Labor Party and Sharon’s finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Labor leader Shimon Peres on Sunday branded Netanyahu’s program of social spending cuts and privatization as “piggish capitalism.” Labor legislator Shalom Simchon said Monday the party would only join the coalition if it was given Netanyahu’s portfolio.

Netanyahu said Labor must not be given a say over economic policy.

Labor’s focus on economic issues appeared to be, in part, an attempt to improve its leverage in coalition talks. The party has said it supports Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip by the end of 2005, though it insists he must drop his refusal to negotiate with the Palestinians.

Sharon needs Labor to stabilize his coalition. Earlier this month, he lost his parliamentary majority over the Gaza plan, as several coalition hardliners either quit or were dismissed.

Labor has promised to give Sharon a parliamentary “safety net” on the Gaza plan. However, after Monday’s vote, Peres said that the offer does not extend to economic policy.

Peres said the government’s handling of the economy has put 1.5 million Israelis below the poverty line and 300,000 out of work. He denied using the confidence vote to pressure Sharon to bring Labor into the coalition.

“What do you want me to say? That I did it because they’re not inviting me into the government?” Peres said. “Really!”

Coalition chairman Gideon Saar, however, said Labor had abstained before in votes on economic issues.

“What happened?” Saar asked. “Did he suddenly just discover poverty?”

Also Monday, Israel’s Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction against the dismantling of Givat Haroeh, one of the largest West Bank settlement outposts. The government had ordered the military to remove the outpost in coming days. Israel is to dismantle dozens of outposts as part of the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan.

In the Gaza Strip, a Thai worker was killed by a mortar shell Palestinian militants fired on an Israeli settlement. The Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility.

In the West Bank of Dir Ballut, several hundred Palestinians protested against the construction of Israel’s separation barrier. Israeli troops fired tear gas and several people, including a young girl, were overcome by the fumes.

Israel, which plans to confiscate nearby farmland for the construction, says the barrier is needed to block suicide bombers. Palestinians say the structure is a land grab.