Netanyahu is handed new crisis His foreign minister threatens to quit over 1998 budget

Concessions extracted

Crucial Israeli vote postponed while negotiations continue


JERUSALEM -- Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy declared yesterday that he was quitting the government in a dispute over the 1998 budget, creating yet another crisis for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and forcing him to delay the crucial budget vote until Monday.

Levy's declaration came as right-wing and religious members of Netanyahu's contentious coalition wrested one concession after another from the prime minister, while the foreign minister's priorities were pushed back.

Calling a news conference, Levy declared that he and the four members of his Gesher faction in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, would vote against the budget, and that "a vote against means resigning from the government."

"There are no tactics," he said. "It is not a matter of a man threatening or playing political games. There, I think, we have passed the 12th hour."

After several more hours of feverish negotiations in the Knesset, Netanyahu's press spokesman, Shai Bazak, announced that the prime minister had decided to postpone the vote to Sunday "and to dedicate the next two days to reaching a budget agreeable to the prime minister and the foreign minister." Deputies subsequently pushed the meeting to Monday.

The threat by Levy was viewed by commentators with an element of skepticism, because he has threatened to quit this and previous governments several times in the past, and has always pulled back after extracting concessions or promises.

But yesterday's outburst seemed to carry more anger than those of the past. In recent months, Levy has been increasingly outspoken in his frustration with Netanyahu, both over broken political promises and the stagnation in negotiations with the Palestinians.

Levy said he had not yet handed in a letter of resignation. If he does, Netanyahu could reject it. And even if Levy and his faction left the government, Netanyahu, whose coalition controls 66 of the 120 seats in parliament, could still pass the budget and avoid new elections.

But the resignation of the foreign minister, who is regarded as a moderate member of the right-wing coalition, would be the most serious blow to the Netanyahu government in 18 months of virtually continual internal and external crises. It would also leave the government with only a one-vote majority in parliament, greatly raising the odds that it would fall.

Though many of the more hawkish members of the Cabinet would probably not regret Levy's departure, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, another moderate voice in the government, declared: "I will act with all my power to ensure that David Levy will remain with us. This is crucial for the peace process and the functioning of the government."

Before the budget debate pushed all other concerns to the side, the Cabinet had been locked in debate over which occupied lands Israel should retain in any settlement with the Palestinians. Netanyahu is tentatively scheduled to travel to Washington in mid-January, when he is expected to declare the scope of the next Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank as part of a deal the United States hopes to conclude for restarting the moribund process.

The postponement of the budget vote for a few more days was not in itself critical. Though the deadline for passing the budget was Wednesday, Israeli law allows a delay of up to three months.

But the bargaining among the religious, ethnic and right-wing parties that make up the government was the most brutal that longtime politicians could remember, dramatizing anew the welter of competing interests that have kept Netanyahu's coalition in a state of almost permanent crisis.

In another development, an Israeli woman was critically wounded in the West Bank early yesterday when a car in which she was riding was raked with gunfire on a road that winds between Palestinian villages.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.

The shooting, which occurred in an area under Israeli security control, came as Israeli officials drew up a document spelling out security demands from the Palestinian authority ahead of a planned further Israeli troop withdrawal in the West Bank.

Pub Date: 1/02/98

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