The slow game of political attrition being played in Israel with high international stakes has inflicted another loss on Prime Minister Menachem Begin -- the defection of two members of parliament from his governing coalition's ranks.
Without them, the Begin government will be left with only 63 votes in the 120 -seat Knesset, at least three of which will be unreliable, if not unavailable, when motions of no-confidence are called.
The defectors -- Knesset Deputies Shafiq Assad and Ahlomo Eliyahu of the badly fragmented Democratic Movement -- stirred political analysts here into new doomsday forecasts of the inevitable fall of the Begin Cabinet just as it inaugurated its fourth year in office.
They attributed their move to inability to exert sufficient influence on national policy and public administration from within the Democratic Movement's dwindling ranks. Therefore, the two asked to be recognized as a separate "brotherhood" faction, declaring that they "will not vote automatically against the government, but will weigh every issue on its own merits."
Despite these semantics, the consequences are clear: Mr. Begin will not be able to depend on Mr. Assad and Mr. Eliyahu for support, especially since the former, a Druze, opposes outlays on Jewish settlement projects in the occupied West Bank when funds for domestic programs are short.
In trying to muster future Knesset majorities, the ruling Likud Party's whip, Avraham Corfu, will have to plead for the uncertain backing of two exmembers of the Begin Cabinet who resigned in protest against its policies and performance: former Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and former Defense Minister Ezer Weizman.
Although Prime Minister Begin could eke out a one-vote majority without them, this would require the support of two lesser-known but equally maverick Likud policitians: Amnon Linn and Hillel Zeidel.
Mr. Linn is an outspoken critic of large-scale defense budget cuts, as recently engineered by Finance Minister Yigael Hurvitz, and Mr. Zeidel is a proponent of flexibility in negotiations with Egypt on issues linked to the year-old peace treaty.
One of the immediate results of the walkout of the two Democrats will be the virtual inability of their party's remaining four Knesset members to block Mr. Begin's nomination of Energy Minister Yitzhak Modai as foreign minister and the transfer of incumbent Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir to the Defense Ministry vacated by Mr. Weizman.
In terms of plain coalition arithmetic, the Democrats will find it difficult to retain three ministerial portfolios on the basis of only four Knesset seats. Even before the double defection, the National religious Party, with 12 seats, complained that it was unfair to restrict it to the same number of ministries as the Democrats (three).
The political careers of two of the Democrats' most prominent leaders -- Deputy Premier Yigael Yadin and Justice Minister Shmuel Tamir - also are menaced by the drop in their party's Knesset strength.
They have been left with little more than a rump party that stands no chance of being returned to parliament in the next national election, an event that now is looming closer than at any time since the series of resignations began with Mr. Dayan's nine months ago.
Some political experts speculate that Mr. Tamir may bolt the Democratic fold and rejoin the Likud Party, both to be assured of a seat in the next Knesset and to provide an alternative to Mr. Begin's party leadership.