JERUSALEM - Israel's coalition government faces a parliamentary showdown today over one of the most contentious issues in Israeli politics - the government's financial support for Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Leaders of the left-of-center Labor Party are threatening to leave the government because of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's request for about $416 million to subsidize settlements. If Labor carries out its threat, it would destabilize Sharon's government and potentially delay any attempt to negotiate a peace settlement with the Palestinians.
For Labor Party leader Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who serves as Sharon's defense minister, a showdown with the prime minister could distance him from the hard-line Likud government and revitalize his faltering campaign to remain party chairman. Ben-Eliezer is facing a tough battle for re-election Nov. 19, with polls showing him trailing Amram Mitzna and Haim Ramon, more dovish candidates.
"If there as going to be an issue to break up the government, settlements would be the issue," said Shmuel Sandler, chairman of the political science department at Bar-Ilan University. Ben-Eliezer, he said, has picked settlements as a political tool.
On the surface, the fight is over money. Ben-Eliezer would cut $145 million earmarked for settlements and instead spend that money on impoverished communities and social programs in Israel.
His is not an easy battle, in part because the money would be spent through dozens of programs - for West Bank roads and fences, subsidies for schools and transportation, and for low-cost mortgages.
Sharon, a major proponent of Jewish settlements and their expansion, has vowed to stick to his budget proposal and to fire any Cabinet minister who votes against it.
Political commentators say Ben-Eliezer's true focus is the leadership of his party.
"It is not the troubles of the elderly that have [the Labor Party] anxious, nor is it the discrimination against university students and the project neighborhoods," political columnist Nahum Barnea wrote in the newspaper Yediot Ahronot. "The only thing that really lights their fire is the internal elections."
Labor and Likud joined forces in a marriage of convenience 19 months ago, after Sharon defeated Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak but inherited a deeply divided parliament.
Sharon saw Labor as providing him with political cover - he could launch attacks on the Palestinians and deflect criticism by saying that his government, through Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, a former Labor prime minister, was working to end the violence through diplomacy. When criticized by right-wing factions, Sharon could say that he was constrained by the need to keep Labor in the government.
Leaders of the Labor Party wanted the influence that came with being part of the government and argued that their presence would keep Sharon's right-wing policies in check. For without Labor, they argued, Sharon would form a coalition government with parties that leaned substantially further to the right.
Sharon said this week that he opposes a new American road map to peace, because it would require a freeze on settlement-building, including so-called natural growth of existing settlements.
Labor and Likud could reach a compromise at the last minute, or Labor could quit and then return to the government within a 48-hour grace period.
Sharon urged Labor yesterday to remain in the government. Such pleas, said Labor Party Secretary-General Ophir Pines-Paz, "are proof of Sharon's fears of being left alone in the government, because he will be exposed for what he is - an extreme right-winger."
Analysts say neither Likud nor Labor wants early elections. Labor would probably lose, because most Israelis agree that a hard-line military stance is the best way to deal with the Palestinians.
Sharon does not want elections, Sandler said, because within Likud, he would have to defeat Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister who criticizes Sharon as too soft on the Palestinians.
"The only person who wants early elections is Netanyahu," Sandler said.
Without the alternative politics of the Labor Party within his government, Sharon could find himself under greater scrutiny from the United States, which wants stability in the region until tensions are resolved with Iraq.