News Analysis: Budget, redeployment push Israel government to brink

JERUSALEM — With two Israeli government ministers calling for early elections, the 19-month-old government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu teetered closer than ever this week to the brink of collapse.

The calls came amid raging debates in the Knesset and backroom negotiations as the prime minister sought to ensure support for the 1998 state budget — and continued support for his government.

But the intense budget debate, as significant as it is, could serve as a precursor to what lies ahead as talks on the further redeployment of Israeli forces in the West Bank approach the moment of decision.

Many political observers maintained that even if the budget bill squeaked past the seething Knesset in the budget vote, which was expected today, this escape would provide only temporary respite for Netanyahu.

Seventeen coalition Knesset members have vowed to vote against the 10 percent pullback reported to be shaping up in behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

In the view of some political analysts here, the anticipation of that storm is what motivated the coalition partners to press Netanyahu and Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman for greater concessions in the budget.

According to this theory, several ministers, including Foreign Minister David Levy of Gesher and Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky of Yisrael Ba'Aliyah, threatened to withhold their support for the budget because they have concluded that the government is doomed.

Some on the far right, such as Likud Knesset member Ze'ev "Benny" Begin, who resigned from the Cabinet earlier in the year to protest the Hebron agreement, said they were opposing the budget as a way of forcing Netanyahu to postpone action on a redeployment.

Netanyahu is due to meet with President Clinton in Washington in January and is expected to present a concrete Israeli redeployment proposal at that time.

The United States had originally pressed for a proposal by mid-December, but gave Netanyahu several more weeks out of concern that hard-line coalition members would turn the budget vote into a no-confidence motion if the prime minister had already announced any specific plan for a pullback.

It was not clear whether the Clinton administration would be prepared to wait until March 31 for movement in the long-stalled peace process.

Under Israeli law, failure to pass a budget by Dec. 31 gives the government an automatic three-month probation period. If it can manage to push the budget through by March 31, it survives. If not, it folds on that date and new elections are called.

As Netanyahu led ministers earlier this week on a tour of the West Bank to survey which lands Israel might transfer to the Palestinians, Netanyahu proclaimed confidence that the budget would indeed be approved.

Budget time has traditionally been the high point of the year for the smaller parties in the governing coalition, a time when they can press more forcefully for their own special interests.

Ironically, these kinds of pressures were supposed to have been eliminated under Israel's new electoral system, introduced before last year's elections, which is based upon the direct election of the prime minister.

But to the consternation of the finance minister and others in the Cabinet, Netanyahu was mired in negotiations this week with rebellious coalition members and at least one party outside the coalition — the ultranationalist Moledet Party, which holds two Knesset seats.

Finance ministers — and Ne'eman is the latest in this tradition — always seek to limit the concessions granted by prime ministers to small parties. Ne'eman was reported to be considering resigning if the budget framework was broken.

The latest horse-trading also exposed the prime minister's lack of credibility among some of his own ministers and political allies.

"We don't just want it in writing," Gesher Knesset member Maxim Levy, the foreign minister's brother, said of a prime ministerial promise. "We want it written into the budget legislation."

To the delight of the opposition, coalition figures did not conceal their skepticism about Netanyahu's commitments — even Health Minister Yehoshua Matza, a Netanyahu stalwart, discovered that promises made to him were not backed by the finance minister, who was supposed to find a way to honor them.

Amid the chaotic atmosphere surrounding the effort to pass a budget this week, two Cabinet members urged the prime minister to call for elections two years ahead of schedule rather than capitulate to what they termed the "extortionist" demands of some coalition partners.

Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani of The Third Way Party challenged other coalition faction leaders to agree to early elections. "Let's see how tough you are; come out and face the electorate," he said.

Kahalani broke away from the Labor Party prior to the 1996 elections to launch The Third Way, which now holds four Knesset seats.

The Labor Party "didn't take me seriously then," said Kahalani. "Don't make the same mistake again."

Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan immediately accepted the challenge. He urged the prime minister to initiate elections before events forced him to do so, and he announced that his Tsomet Party, which ran jointly with Likud last year, would run on a separate ticket and that he would run for prime minister.

The two ministers found support for their call from a key Likud Knesset member, coalition chairman Meir Sheetrit, whose job is to ensure that the government has sufficient support in the Knesset on any vote. This week Sheetrit found that some coalition members were either voting with the opposition or abstaining on pieces of the budget legislation.

For early elections to take place, a majority of the 120-member Knesset would have to approve legislation to dissolve the legislature.

The battles among the political parties themselves during the budget debate were perhaps the strongest pieces of evidence that elections are in the air.

Gesher, Yisrael Ba'Aliyah and the three Orthodox parties each sought to impress upon their constituencies how much it had wrung from the budget for their benefit.