Israeli parliament rejects Sharon appointments, dealing blow to prime minister

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon failed Monday to win parliamentary approval for his nomination of new Cabinet ministers, reflecting the deep divisions in the ruling Likud Party and raising the likelihood that the country could be headed for early elections.

The 60-54 vote dealt an embarrassing blow to Sharon, but did not put his government in immediate jeopardy. Several Likud members voted against the nominations.

Disgruntled Likud hard-liners, still angry over Sharon's September pullout from the Gaza Strip, objected to his plan to promote loyalists in what they said was a political payoff.

"There will be consequences," Sharon said after the vote. He did not elaborate, and called an emergency meeting of Cabinet ministers to discuss how to proceed.

Sharon had asked parliament to confirm acting Finance Minister Ehud Olmert to the treasury post, and appoint two other supporters to the trade and immigrant-absorption portfolios. He submitted the three nominations to a single vote in an "all or nothing" package.

Party rebels were prepared to approved Olmert's nomination, but objected to the other appointments.

Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin said he would attempt to schedule a separate vote on the Olmert nomination later Monday, with the other two nominations to be voted on at a later date.

The failed package vote could signal difficulties for Sharon in an upcoming budget battle. Failure to pass the budget would causes the government to collapse and force new elections.

Sharon, whose term is set to expire in November 2006, has said he opposes early elections. But aides concede he may have no choice, AP reported. V.A.

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