JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have survived a narrow no-confidence vote in the parliament this week, but he has emerged from the victory battered and with his ever-fractious coalition considerably weakened.
The Israeli leader's damaged standing could hurt his ability to move forward in peace talks with the Palestinians, with the rifts inside his eight-party coalition making it tougher for him to muster the support needed for peace-making concessions.
In the aftermath of Tuesday's 55-50 vote, which featured nine prominent defections among coalition members--including Netanyahu's foreign minister and former finance minister--the Israeli media and public were abuzz with speculation Wednesday about how long the Likud Party-led government could last, at least in its current form.
The prime minister cobbled together the votes to defeat the motion by forging last-minute deals with two wavering coalition partners. But his achievement, so narrowly won, "was the sort about which one says, 'Another victory like this, and we're done for,' " columnist Hemi Shalev wrote in the newspaper Maariv.
The discord in the coalition also forced Netanyahu to put off an expected announcement on a Cabinet reshuffle after Ariel Sharon, a Likud hawk who was to be named finance minister, demanded that he be included in formulating strategy for negotiations with the Palestinians.
Foreign Minister David Levy and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordecai opposed the powerful policy-making role for Sharon, a controversial former general who spearheaded Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and is a fervent advocate of Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank.
Analysts said the two were concerned that inclusion of Sharon in Netanyahu's inner Cabinet would reduce any hope of restarting the stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.
But Israel Radio reported early today that Netanyahu and Sharon had reached agreement on Sharon's appointment to the Finance Ministry and the security post.
No one, not even the opposition Labor Party, was prepared Wednesday to predict the government's imminent demise.
But political analysts pointed to the defection of Netanyahu's coalition members as the day's most damaging development and said it indicates the beginning of internal opposition to the prime minister.
"We're seeing a process of delegitimization of this government," said Gideon Doron, political science professor at Tel Aviv University. "This is precisely what the opposition usually tries to do, but now it's coming from pillars of the coalition."
Netanyahu has lost credibility with his right-religious coalition through the mismanagement of a series of key appointments, including one earlier this year that led to an influence-peddling scandal in which he escaped indictment.
He has also angered some Cabinet members by failing to consult them on important decisions.
Among those who withheld support Tuesday, by staying away during the tally or opting not to vote, were Foreign Minister Levy, along with four others of his Gesher Party, and Dan Meridor and Zeev Begin, former Cabinet ministers from Likud who resigned in disputes with Netanyahu and are expected to form a core of opposition within the faction.