Israeli budget approved in first test after minister’s resignation

JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won parliamentary approval for his 1998 budget Monday, surviving the first test of his strength since losing a foreign minister who also was his Cabinet’s strongest peace advocate.
But Netanyahu still faces a no-confidence vote next week, after several allies called for early elections following Sunday’s resignation of Foreign Minister David Levy.
Without Levy’s Gesher faction, Netanyahu’s coalition holds only 61 out of the 120 seats in parliament.
Netanyahu insisted he would survive and carry out “measured” moves toward peace with the Palestinians.
“I don’t think there will be any early elections,” he told Army Radio. “I’ve been eulogized at least 18 times in the past 18 months and you see I’m still here. We passed the budget and we’re on our way.”
But lawmakers from both the coalition and the opposition predicted Monday that a vote would be held as early as the spring. It could also be forced by next week’s a no-confidence vote brought by the dovish Meretz party.
U.S. officials said Monday that the Mideast peace process should not be hurt by the resignation of Levy, who was the leading supporter of the peacemaking in the Cabinet.
“Individuals and the role individual Cabinet members play in the process change from time to time, but the process continues,” said White House spokesman Mike McCurry.
Netanyahu is expected to present a concrete pullout plan when he meets with President Clinton on Jan. 20.
Israel committed itself in past accords with the PLO to three West Bank troop pullbacks by mid-1998. The withdrawals have been delayed, first by disagreements over the scope of the pullouts, then by Islamic militants’ suicide bombings in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu has been struggling for weeks to come up with a pullback offer that will both satisfy the Palestinians and prevent the collapse of his coalition. The United States wants Israel to add at least 10 percent of the West Bank to the 27 percent in which the Palestinian already have autonomy.
Palestinian leaders expressed concern Monday that Netanyahu would use his political vulnerability to further delay the troop pullbacks.
But Public Security Minister Avidgor Kahalani said his four-member Third Way Party would pull out of the government and bring it down if Netanyahu did not go ahead with the withdrawal.
Netanyahu reportedly faced unprecedented criticism from his Cabinet ministers in a meeting Monday that preceded the budget vote. Israel TV’s Channel Two said he was accused of mishandling Levy and bringing Israel’s economy to an all-time low, with unemployment soaring past 8 percent.
At the start of the parliament session, Levy sat in his assigned seat next to Netanyahu, and the two shook hands and exchanged a curt greeting. Levy’s resignation as foreign minister takes effect Tuesday.
After scores of objections to individual budget items, the budget itself passed by a 58 to 52 vote, with one abstention.
Former Finance Minister Avraham Shohat of the Labor Party said the budget, which includes massive subsidies to Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies, will bring more unemployment and not stimulate growth.
Announcing his resignation, Levy bitterly denounced Netanyahu’s government for abandoning the peace process and ignoring the mounting problems of Israel’s poor and unemployed, who voted overwhelmingly for Netanyahu in the 1996 election.