ISRAEL'S right-wing coalition government has started to unravel, raising the prospect of early elections and a protracted round of political horse trading.
As Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's right-wing partners announced their plans to resign over what they regard as a dangerous turn in the course of the Middle East peace talks, government aides said that Mr. Shamir would probably seek early elections.
While Shamir and his colleagues held intensive consultations, the opposition Labor Party met to decide how best to capitalize on the situation. Labor has in the past said it will not bring down the government as long as Shamir pursues the peace process.
But Labor Party Secretary Micha Harish said they would submit a no-confidence motion on the government's handling of the worsening economy.
Shamir will need Labor's support to pass the necessary bill calling for early elections. Labor members said they would cooperate, but would negotiate over the precise date. If elections are called, observers predicted they would most likely take place in May or early June.
The political crisis caused little outward display of alarm, perhaps because it had long been anticipated. The two small ultra-nationalist parties in question, Tehiya and Molodet, had repeatedly threatened to quit the government if Palestinian autonomy was discussed at the peace talks.
Earlier in the week, it was reported that Israeli negotiators in Washington had presented their Palestinian counterparts with a blueprint for an interim period of self-rule in the occupied territories. Officials denied any such document had been presented, but later reports suggested the Israelis had given the Palestinians a paper summarizing Israeli proposals for self-rule.
This was enough for Molodet and Tehiya. Tehiya's leader, Yuval Neeman, who is also Israel's science and energy minister, said he had no choice but to resign.
"Unfortunately ... [the peace talks] did reach substance this week when Israel presented an agenda for the autonomy talks," Mr. Neeman told Israel Radio. "This is therefore the moment where we have to leave."
Neeman was thought to be reluctant to make the decision, favoring instead a delay until proper autonomy talks were under way. Reports suggested his more vociferous colleagues gave him no choice. Molodet's leader, Rhavam Zeevi, who advocates the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied territories, has no doubts at all.
"This is the first step towards Palestinian autonomy in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip," he said. "That means a Palestinian state. That means the destruction of Israel."
By withdrawing their support from the government, Tehiya, with three members of parliament, and Moledet, with two, will rob Shamir of his slim majority, leaving him with 59 supporters out of the 120 Knesset members. Government officials said they regretted the move by the parties but vowed to pursue the peace process.
"We're committed to the peace process, as we are committed to Eretz [Greater] Israel," said Shamir's chief of staff, Yossi Achimeir. "We are loyal to our belief that Eretz Israel is our homeland, and we will fight for it, as we will fight for continuing the process."
In theory, the departure of the coalition's two most hawkish partners leaves Shamir free to pursue the peace talks as he sees fit. But the prime minister is a cautious man, and remains surrounded by hawks within his own Likud party.
Observers said they didn't expect to see any radical departure from the slow strategy employed since last October's Madrid conference.