Netanyahu expected to stay, NRP set to quitPrime Minister Ariel Sharon will be left with a coalition of barely 55 MKs today when the National Religious Party is expected to formally announce it is withdrawing from the coalition because Sharon refused to back a national referendum on the disengagement, or an election date, or a freeze of his disengagement plan.
But Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to announce that he will remain in the government, thus forestalling an outright battle for leadership of the Likud.
The Likud faction in the Knesset approved recommendations yesterday made by a team of MKs to begin the process of constitutionalizing the referendum process into a Basic Law. It sent the recommendations to the Knesset Constitution, Justice and Law Committee, where it is expected to be buried by chairman Michael Eitan largely because Sharon remains opposed to a referendum on his plan.
Eitan indicated his committee would begin work on the proposed legislation within two weeks. Eitan said he did not think there was a majority in the committee for a move to make the referendum part of the political system, with only seven of the 18 MKs on the committee known to favor a referendum.
The Likud faction meeting was tense, with Sharon at one point lashing out at disengagement opponents saying, "you don't have exclusive say over what's good and bad for Israel; not operationally, not morally, and not strategically. There is a government and it made a decision," said Sharon, when former minister Uzi Landau and former deputy minister Michal Ratzon criticized him for opposing a referendum.
Despite Sharon's continued opposition to the referendum, Netanyahu is expected to announce today that a unanimous vote yesterday in the Likud faction, calling on him to retract his ultimatum to resign if Sharon does not approve a referendum on disengagement, was sufficient for him to withdraw the resignation.
Netanyahu is also expected to refer to the anticipated changes in the Palestinian Authority political arena with the demise of Arafat, and his eagerness to pass economic reforms in the capital markets such as the Bachar recommendations released yesterday, as other reasons why it would be inappropriate for him to resign.
Nonetheless, disengagement opponents continued to press him to go ahead with the resignation nonetheless, assuming he would take over leadership of the entire right if he did so. Among those reportedly pressing him to quit and openly challenge Sharon for the party leadership is his wife, Sara.
Sharon tried to dissuade the NRP from resigning, telling them that there was a "new situation, changes and developments," an apparent reference to the PA's political scene.
The NRP MKs said that "if there's a new situation" requiring them to freeze their departure from the coalition, then the same new situation should require Sharon to freeze his disengagement plan.
When he refused, the six MKs of the pro-settler party, who have been at loggerheads with each other for months over when the party should quit the coalition, were unanimous about quitting, and yesterday afternoon won almost sweeping support for their decision from the party's 50-member executive council.