After meeting with Sharon, Lapid said he was “surprised” by the offer. Lapid denied he met with the prime minister in order to form a new coalition government.

Lapid said that Sharon’s effort to shore up his fragile coalition stems from the prime minister’s need to pass the state budget before the end of the year.

“Sharon needs a majority for the budget,” explained Lapid. “And he’s faced with three opposition groups: a minority within his own party, Shas, and us.”

“He needs to find a balance between all this,” he added.

The Likud’s Knesset majority has weakened substantially as a result of the disengagement from Gaza and northern Samaria. A number of Likud Knesset members broke away from the coalition in protest and have all but joined up with religious and right-wing parties, which pulled out months before the disengagement took place.

About a week ago, Sharon met with Shas party leader Eli Yishai, in what appeared to be a another bid to stabilize his coalition. Media reports speculated that Sharon was about to ease budget restraints in order to entice Shas, a haredi-religious party, back into the government.

Shas and Shinui, a party defined by many as anti-religious, are bitter rivals and refuse to sit together in the same government. Sharon, so far has failed to perform the acrobatic maneuver that would allow for a modus vivendi between the two ideologically opposed groups.

Shinui left Sharon’s coalition last year, after Sharon went too far in making budgetary allocations for religious institutions, such as yeshivot (religious seminaries). Sharon, however, succeeded in buying back Shinui’s support on crucial Knesset votes by a providing nearly a billion shekels for private, secular institutions supported by Shinui’s constituency.

Among Shinui’s legislative demands for returning to the coalition fold are laws legalizing civil marriage and reducing the ability of army-age haredi-religious males to receive exemptions from military service. Both proposals are anathema to Shas.

Lapid said he thought that Sharon was serious about making the concessions necessary to bring Shinui back into the coalition. “I got the impression that Sharon wants to act and start meeting our demands. I’ll try to exploit that crack and widen it in order to make the budget more” responsive to social needs, he said.

Despite their ostensible ideological differences, demanding more money for social causes has become the rallying cry of virtually every party, whether from within the coalition or without.

While it is unclear whether legislation or money stands at the forefront of Shinui’s coalition demands, Lapid let Sharon know that his party’s support was not something the prime minister could count on. “If he doesn’t start negotiating with us,” said Lapid, “Shinui will vote against the government. If Sharon wants to change his basic positions, he must come to us.”

In the meantime, Sharon has reportedly set up another meeting with Shas leader, Eli Yishai.