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Weakened Netanyahu wins Israeli budget vote

Netanyahu and Levy
Levy (left) shakes hands with Netanyahu during Knesset debates Monday. The two men exchanged a curt greeting.  

Opposition holds talks on early elections

January 5, 1998
Web posted at: 1:20 p.m. EST (1820 GMT)

In this story:

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Benjamin Netanyahu's weakened coalition government narrowly survived its first test since the resignation of Foreign Minister David Levy when parliament on Monday approved the prime minister's 1998 budget.

The spending plan, a key issue in Levy's decision to resign, passed 58-52, with one abstention.

Levy's resignation, announced on Sunday, goes into effect on Tuesday, leaving Netanyahu's coalition of right-wing and religious parties in control of only 61 of parliament's 120 seats.

Some Netanyahu allies predicted tough times ahead due to Levy's resignation and the prime minister himself knows his ability to govern has been badly damaged.

"This government has come to its end," said Ehud Barak, leader of the opposition Labor Party, which plans a new parliamentary no-confidence vote against Netanyahu next Monday. "It might survive for another few more weeks or months but ultimately (there will be) new elections."

West Bank land
Netanyahu's next hurdle, a decision on how much more West Bank land should go to the Palestinians  

Labor Party legislator Eli Goldschmidt met with the leaders of coalition factions to discuss the possibility of early elections. "In my view, we should expect early elections in the spring," Goldschmidt told Israel radio.

However, Likud faction chief Meir Shetreet said after talks with Goldschmidt that he was confident the government would survive. Netanayu was first elected in May 1996.

Side-by-side but barely speaking

Levy and the other four members of his Gesher Party voted against the 207 billion shekel ($57.7 billion) budget, saying the government was not addressing the needs of low-income Israelis and was not advancing peace with Palestinians.

Only one legislator from Netanyahu's ruling Likud party -- Benny Begin, son of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin and a longtime rival of Netanyahu -- broke ranks by abstaining.

Another Likud rebel stayed away from the vote.

Netanyahu, looking anxious, broke into a wide smile when the vote was announced. He waved at supporters in the gallery and shook hands with colleagues.

Monday's vote was preceded by a series of votes on objections raised by the opposition -- all of which were rejected.

At the start of the session, Levy sat in his assigned seat next to Netanyahu, and the two men shook hands and exchanged a curt greeting.

Israeli newspaper
Levy's picture accompanies the headline "Preparing for Elections" in an Israeli newspaper Monday  

Netanyahu to use fear factor in bid to survive

Earlier in the day, Netanyahu met with coalition legislators -- except the five from Levy's Gesher Party -- to ensure support for the budget.

Netanyahu only hinted at his troubles, telling Likud mayors who came to see him: "I want to thank you for standing by my side, especially in such moments."

The prime minister has skillfully survived crisis after crisis in the last year and a half and he has another ace up his sleeve. As he has before, Netanyahu plans to play up Israeli fears of Palestinian militancy. He won election by opposing peace agreements made before he took office and he has already begun warning that if the Labor wins the next election, the party would sell out Israel's interests to the Arabs.

However, it is not at all certain Israelis will scare that easily again. Polls show nearly 60 percent of Israelis support moving up elections from the year 2000. Disenchantment with Netanyahu is running especially high as he becomes increasingly hard-line and becomes increasingly dependent on ultra-orthodox religious parties to survive.

Jerusalem Bureau Chief Walter Rodgers, Correspondent Jerrold Kessel and Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.


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