Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin survived a motion of no-confidence by one vote today but was left with a minority government that appeared to make a new national election all but inevitable, probably in November.
By 58 to 57, with three key abstentions by members of two small rightist parties, Begin's Likud coalition squeaked through the Knesset (parliament) on a confidence vote over the ailing economy. Two members were absent, but their votes offset each other.
Although the abstentions gave Begin a one-vote majority, defections to the opposition Labor Party by two Likud members left Begin's ruling party with only 46 seats, compared to the Labor opposition's 50 seats. With coalition partners from three religious parties, Begin can count on 59 seats in the 120-member Knesset, leaving the three members of the ultranationalist Tehiya (renaissance) Party and the two members of the rightist Telem Party with power to determine the fate of the government. The opposition now can count on 56 votes, including those of small leftist parties.
To address the imbalance, the Likud today promised the ultranationalist Tehiya that it will speed up construction of new settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and harden its position in negotiations on proposed autonomy for the 1.3 million Arab inhabitants, Knesset sources said.
The prime minister smiled confidently as he walked from the Knesset, predicting he will strengthen his parliamentary power base if elections are held.
"Listen, even if the opposition had won this contest, I'd be in the same wonderful spirit and mood. We would go to the electorate and win the election by a difference to our benefit of five or six mandates," Begin said in an impromptu interview in the Knesset parking garage.
Earlier, Begin's press secretary, Uri Porat, had said the prime minister favors introducing a motion to hold elections unless the Likud can broaden its coalition by bringing in some members of the swing Tehiya and Telem parties.
A deadlock in today's vote was avoided by the surprise abstention of Hanan Porat of the Tehiya, which was formed by opponents of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The Tehiya, still rankled over the dismantlement of Jewish settlements in the Sinai Peninsula, had announced earlier that it would vote against the government, but at the last minute Porat abstained.
Likud sources said Porat had been promised an intensification of Israeli settlement activity, including an official declaration that 100,000 Jews will be settled in the occupied territories in the next few years.
Likud leaders said Begin refused to negotiate the terms directly with Porat but a committee that included Defense Minister Ariel Sharon met with Tehiya representatives.
Labor Party leader Shimon Peres told reporters after the vote that he would continue to press for a collapse of the Begin government.
"I think it is for the good of the country to go for elections as long as the parliament is divided equally and we have to make some important decisions," Peres said.
When asked if he would press for another no-confidence vote, Peres replied, "If we have another month of 10.7 percent inflation, or if we have more trouble in the occupied territories, we will surely make a no-confidence motion."
In his closing speech of the Knesset debate, when the outcome of the vote was apparent, Begin mocked the Labor Party for attempting to bring down the government by what he termed "political bribery," a reference to patronage promises to former Likud members Amnon Linn and Yitzhak Peretz to induce their defection yesterday.
Despite the prime minister's confidence after weathering the storm, Likud sources acknowledged that unless the coalition can broaden its base by adding at least several votes from Telem and Tehiya, it will be impossible for the government to pass any significant legislation, including the budget, in the months ahead.
In the past, Begin has said he would be unwilling to head a minority government, and would seek instead to dissolve the parliament and set a new election. The date mentioned most often is November, which would coincide with municipal elections.