ISRAELI Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, shorn of his parliamentary majority by desertions from his governing coalition, was battling yesterday to stave off a vote of no-confidence in parliament as the country prepared for early general elections.
The opposition Labor Party yesterday called for a vote of no-confidence in the government because of high unemployment. The call followed Sunday's resignation by two small ultranationalist parties from the Likud-led coalition. The defections left Mr. Shamir in control of only 59 seats in the 120-member Knesset (parliament).
The no-confidence vote will be held next week. But Shamir has said that even if he can cobble together enough votes to stay in power, he wants to call early elections rather than head a minority government until the previously planned election in November.
Labor Party General Secretary Micha Harish and chief party whip Haim Ramon began contacts with Likud leaders yesterday about when the elections should be held. Both parties reportedly favor an early June vote.
That would give Labor time to hold primaries to choose a party leader in February and its candidates for the Knesset in early April. The Likud also needs time to hold a convention to set party policy and elect a leader.
Shamir, who has said he intends to lead the Likud into the elections if he is chosen, is unlikely to face serious trouble from his two potential challengers, Housing Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister David Levy, analysts say. Early campaign ploy
Labor's no-confidence motion is seen mainly as an early campaign ploy, although a defeat for the government would theoretically give Labor leader Shimon Peres the opportunity to try to form a government himself. To do so, however, he would need the support of at least some of the religious parties aligned with Likud, and his chances of forming a government would be minimal.
Rather, says Susan Hattis Rolef, editor of the Labor movement's magazine "Spectrum," the motion raises one of the issues Labor plans to campaign on - unemployment - while offering a chance to embarrass the Likud.
"The question is whether the government falls over the vote of no confidence or goes [out] nicely with an agreement on early elections," she says. "It would look good for Labor if we could bring the government down."
The outcome of the vote is unclear. Three small left-wing parties have said they will not help bring the government down, in order to hold Shamir to his commitment to the Middle East peace talks. Labor whip Ramon will be seeking to change their minds this week.
Rehavam Zeevi, leader of the extreme right-wing Moledet and one of the two ministers whose resignation takes effect today, said after Sunday's Cabinet meeting that although he now opposed the Shamir government, "we will have to think carefully about how we vote on any no-confidence motion. We will have to keep in mind ... the content of the motion and who is presenting it." Doubts over peace talks
Mr. Zeevi and Tehiya leader Yuval Neeman took their five Knesset members out of the governing coalition on Sunday when it became clear that the Israeli delegation to the last round of peace talks in Washington had presented the Palestinian team with proposals for Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories. Those proposals, Tehiya and Moledet worried, will lead eventually to the creation of a Palestinian state.
Announcing his desire for early elections, Shamir also said he wanted the peace talks to proceed despite the political flux in Israel. At the same time, he hoped the election would not interfere with Israel's request for a $10 billion loan guarantee from the United States to help settle new Jewish immigrants, which the Bush administration is due to consider at the end of this month.
That loan guarantee is expected to play a major part in the forthcoming campaign, especially if President Bush, as expected, demands that Israel stop building settlements in the occupied territories in return for the guarantee. Israel's economic future
Shamir has refused to accept such a condition, and Labor is likely to argue that by insisting on further settlement, the Likud is endangering Israel's economic future as it seeks to absorb hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union.
The prime minister's insistence that Israel can win peace with its Arab neighbors while maintaining control over the occupied territories is expected to be his major campaign theme. While that message may win him votes, it is bound to increase tensions with the US, which favors a land-for-peace deal in the Middle East negotiations.
The latest opinion polls suggest that the Likud will win at the elections, but not enough to form a government itself - thus obliging Shamir to seek coalition allies among the same religious and extreme right-wing parties that have backed him until now.
Such a prospect, carrying with it the likelihood of a continuation of current government's policies, bodes ill for Israel's relations with the US, and offers Labor a potentially fruitful campaign theme.