Advisers to Prime Minister Shimon Peres are actively seeking to force the Likud bloc out of the government of national unity. That is the assessment of informed sources who say that at least some of Mr. Peres's advisers are convinced they must take advantage of two factors: the deep divisions within the hard-line Likud bloc, and Peres's heightened popularity which has dramatically rejuvenated his Labor Party.
``There is a split in the ranks of those closest to Peres,'' said one Western observer. ``Some, I believe including the prime minister, think they should hold off and drag the Likud to start negotiations with a Jordanian-Palestinian team. Others feel the time is now to get rid of the Likud.''
In a move filled with political risks, the advisers who favor breaking up the government now have leaked reports to the press of a Peres-formulated plan for implementing full autonomy in the occupied territories. These reports also say the plan may already have been secretly agreed to by Jordan's King Hussein.
The aim of leaking the plan is that news of its existence is exacerbating tensions in the Likud -- between those Cabinet ministers, headed by Vice-Premier Yitzhak Shamir, who want the government to continue, and the ministers headed by Ariel Sharon, who would like to see it fall.
But the danger lies in the possibility that the leak ``may scare off King Hussien'' said one Western analyst, and derail the peace process, or galvanize opposition within Israel to loosening Israel's grip on the occupied territories.
The government is evenly balanced between the centrist Labor Party that Peres heads and the rival Likud bloc. Under an agreement signed between Peres and Likud head Yitzhak Shamir a year ago, the premiership is due to be handed over to Mr. Shamir in 11 months.
Shamir is determined to hold the government together until that rotation, but he has been unable to solidify his position as head of the Herut Party within the Likud, and faces increasingly public challenges from rival Sharon and Housing Minister David Levy.
It was Sharon and Levy who engineered the confrontation with Peres when he returned from his trip to the United States Sunday. The ministers demanded clarification of Peres's speech delivered last week at the United Nations. Peres had called for direct negotiations between Israel and a Jordanian-Palestinian team, but left the door open for a UN conference to kick off the talks.
Monday, Peres stuck by his speech in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. He won an overwhelming vote of confidence form the Knesset, which the Labor Party has chosen to read as a vote of confidence in his peace plan.
The Likud adamantly opposes peace negotations that would entail any sort of territorial compromise by Israel on the occupied West Bank. The Likud appeared badly divided during Monday's Knesset session. Advisers to Peres, sources say, thought the time was ripe to capitalize on the Likud's public embarrassment.
Press reports appeared in Israel and abroad this week, claiming that Hussein and Peres agreed during a secret meeting last month to enter talks to give political autonomy to Palestinians on the West Bank. Thursday, Sharon and the right-wing ultranationalist Tehiya Party accused Peres of violating the coalition agreement and secretly ``selling out'' what they call ``Eretz Israel,'' the greater land of Israel.
Peres's office denied that any autonomy plan has been presented to the Jordanians or that any secret agreement has been reached. In a speech to the Labor Party central comittee in Tel Aviv Thursday night, Peres bitterly attacked minister Sharon.
``We have to wait and see if Peres is now going to rein in [those who leaked the plan] in the next couple of days, or if he is going to let them run with it,'' said a Western analyst. ``Then we will know if he's decided to dump this government.''
Several developments may have increased Peres's confidence in his ability to form a narrow, Labor-led government. They include:
His unprecedented popularity. Public opinion polls say that some 68 percent of the Israeli electorate believes that Peres is doing a good job as prime minister.
Improvement in the economy. When Peres came to power one year ago, he is fond of saying, he found ``the coffers were empty.'' The Israeli government was nearly bankrupt. Inflation figures have decreased dramatically since then.
Israel is all but out of Lebanon which has disappeared from public debate.
Movement in the peace process. Peres has described the diplomatic situation as ``dynamic'' and spoken of a ``door being opened that was locked.'' Peres is particularly encouraged by King Hussein's praise of his speech to the UN.
But there are factors, too, that might cause the prime minister to hold back from precipitating a government crisis. It is still unclear that the religious parties -- key to forming a narrow government without the Likud -- are ready to break their seven-year alliance with the Likud and join Labor. At best, Labor could hope to achieve a 61 or 63 seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset.