JERUSALEM -- Members of the extreme right within Israel's government are about to bring down the most right-wing government in the country's history.
The government has not been nearly extreme enough. They want to stop the Middle East peace process. And they probably will succeed in at least interrupting it.
Yet, in doing so, the small parties of the far right that have announced their departure will be unraveling the government that has done more than any other to satisfy their basic demand -- that the territories captured in 1967 stay permanently under Israel's control.
The government has supported Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by building a record number of new homes there at public expense. It has established new settlements at the cost of relations with the United States, and it recently met settlers' demands by ordering the deportation of a dozen Palestinian activists.
Leaders of the far right nevertheless felt betrayed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. They opposed his decision to begin peace negotiations with Palestinians. Even worse, from their point of view, Israel's negotiators in Washington this week resumed discussions broken off in 1982 about granting Palestinians limited self-rule.
"We are leaving the government in order to prevent autonomy," said Yuval Ne'eman, leader of the Tehiya party. Tehiya decided Wednesday to resign from the Cabinet, and another small party, Moledet, announced last night that it was leaving.
"Our intention," said Yair Spinzak, a Moledet representative in the Knesset, or parliament, "is to stop what is called the peace process."
Mr. Spinzak and his colleagues were upset by the Israeli negotiators' promise to discuss a plan for Palestinian autonomy. Israel agreed to autonomy as part of the Camp David peace accords with Egypt in 1979. This time, the Israeli delegation is offering the Palestinians somewhat less -- but still too much for the far right.
If the parties do not reverse themselves, their resignations will take effect Tuesday. Mr. Shamir then would control only 59 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, two fewer than he needs for a majority. He would have to choose between resigning or losing a vote of confidence.
In either case, the result would be to move national elections up from November to sometime this spring.
Mr. Shamir would remain head of a transitional government until elections took place.
Crises such as this are an almost normal part of the country's political life, and previous governments given only hours to live have managed to survive for years. Aides to Mr. Shamir say the fate of his coalition will not be clear for several weeks.
If the coalition collapsed, its end would affect the peace process and Israel's chances of getting $10 billion in housing loan guarantees from the United States:
* In the peace talks, Israel's negotiating teams would be unable to make significant proposals or to accept proposals of another side. Until a new government was formed, the talks would be restricted more to politesse than substance.
* U.S. officials strongly suggest that they will condition approval of the loan guarantees on Israel's pledging not to use the loans directly or indirectly to expand Jewish settlements. Only a government with a parliamentary majority would be able to commit itself to fulfill those conditions.
There is irony in far-right opposition to a government led by Mr. Shamir, considered a right-wing extremist for much of his career. The 76-year-old prime minister opposes Israel's giving up territory in exchange for peace. But he has angered Jewish settlers who see negotiations with Palestinians as a dangerous step toward giving up the land.
"The right is so committed to its position that it will break apart a government that essentially favors its positions," said Daniel Elazar, head of a non-partisan political research group. "It acts before events would really force it to."
If elections were held today, pollsters say, the far right would probably increase its strength in parliament at the expense of Mr. Shamir's Likud bloc and be in a stronger position to set the national agenda. Surveys show the center-left, led by the Labor Party, losing seats and emerging weaker than at any other time. Labor favors greater concessions for peace treaties.
Mr. Shamir's troubles are partly due to a system that makes it difficult for any government actually to govern. No party has ever controlled a majority of parliament on its own, and prime ministers are forced to rely on coalitions with smaller parties.
Those parties invariably become expert at making demands as their price for remaining in the partnership. For the far right, the demand has been that Mr. Shamir offer the Palestinians as little as possible, and the far right sounds convinced that its demand has not been met.