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Mideast Peace Mounts a Shakier Stage

Perils of Netanyahu a concern as US envoy arrives today to pave way for Clinton talks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition may have survived the resignation of David Levy, his foreign minister. But it is unclear whether a renewed American push to restart stalled Middle East peace talks will.

Mr. Levy, who was Washington's best hope within the Cabinet, took his parliament seat next to Mr. Netanyahu yesterday and voted against the premier's budget, which passed by 58 to 52.

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But as of today, Levy will no longer hold that seat. The exit of his five-member political faction leaves Netanyahu with just 61 seats to depend on - one vote short of a collapse in the 120-seat Knesset.

What may be more endangered, however, is renewed efforts by the Clinton adminstration to push the Israelis and Palestinians toward peace.

US envoy Dennis Ross is due to arrive in the region today for meetings with Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. President Clinton will meet the two on Jan. 20 and 22.

The United States has felt mounting pressure from its Arab allies in recent months - made glaringly clear by its failure to rally support against Iraq during the ongoing weapons-inspection flap. The US has, in turn, upped the pressure on Israel to deliver on the 1993 Olso agreements, which have not been implemented in almost a year. Oslo has been sidetracked by Israeli settlement-building on disputed land and by Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel.

Despite Netanyahu's unpopularity - polls show him 10 to 15 points behind Labor Party rival Ehud Barak - those who remain in the governing coalition are expected to hold tight.

The many small parties in Netanyahu's government fear losing seats if new elections are held. And right-wing forces dead-set against turning over more West Bank land to the Palestinians know that they won't get anyone more hawkish than Netanyahu for prime minister.

Small parties in check

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"The paradox is that when the government is narrower, there is a tendency to be more loyal to the prime minister and to cause less trouble," says Avner de-Shalit, a Hebrew University political science professor. "The small parties cannot allow themselves to cause problems because they fear the government will collapse."

The small, centrist parties that would be the best candidates for deserting Netanyahu - the Third Way party and the immigrant party - worry they might lose votes in a new election, as well as their ministerial positions.

Both are new parties that may have attracted one-time-only protest votes.

"They might not think it's in their interest to have elections now," says Mr. De-Shalit. "People are tired of small parties, according to polls."

Moreover, some reports suggested that Netanyahu might tap Natan Sharanksy, the former Soviet refusenik who leads the immigrants party, to be the next foreign minister to avoid having to appoint Ariel Sharon.

The appointment of the ex-general, who has a sullied reputation abroad, would fuel international fears that Netanyahu's government had lurched further to the right upon Levy's resignation.

Rumors that Mr. Sharanksy could get the position might entice him to keep his seven-member block in the coalition.

The Rabin example

Many pundits here say Netanyahu seems to be on shakier ground than ever before, and members of his Labor Party opposition say his government will not survive 1998.

But he would not be the first prime minister to operate successfully on such a slim majority. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's government survived with a 61-seat block during the historic period of peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians.

"This government will continue its work, continue to exist, and continue to do what's necessary until the year 2000 or later," Netanyahu says. "I don't think there will there will be early elections. I think the coalition will hold," he adds.

Netanyahu's attempt to appear confident explained his decision to go ahead and present his budget for a vote yesterday. Even if he had been unsuccessful in passing the budget, the government could well have held on until March.

He also gets an extra hand from the ultranationalist Moledet ("Homeland") Party, which is not in his coalition but will provide its two votes to any government move - as long as it doesn't mean turning over land to Palestinians.

Even if Netanyahu's remaining coalition partners choose to stay in his boat, Israelis who don't want to see him sink the peace process could force him to new elections, or force him out office. A poll yesterday in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest daily, said that 62 percent of Israelis felt Levy's resignation was justified, and 58 percent want elections.

But even if the politicians in power aren't as anxious for new elections, there is a chance that rising discontent with Netanyahu could bring on a vote to eject the prime minister from office. That would require two-thirds of all lawmakers to decide to effectively impeach Netanyahu.

Netanyahu may now find himself unable to muster support for a withdrawal from 10 to 15 percent of the West Bank - a troop redeployment the US has been pushing for and Palestinians say is less than they are due anyway.

Levy was the foremost Cabinet member pressuring Netanyahu to move swiftly to resume implementation of the accords.

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