Netanyahu in Marathon Talks to Secure Support for Budget

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held marathon talks with coalition partners this week in a bid to secure their support for his budget.

Facing a deadline Wednesday night for the Knesset to give final approval of the 1998 budget, some key coalition members were conditioning their support on more social spending and canceling planned cuts.

If the Dec. 31 deadline passes, the government will have another three months to try to pass the budget, but if that fails, the government would fall.

Further complicating matters is a three-week “reprieve” Netanyahu was said to have been given by the United States to pass the budget before coming forward with a decision on the scope of a redeployment in the West Bank.

The extension was issued out of concern that hard-line members of Netanyahu’s coalition would turn the budget vote into a no-confidence motion if the prime minister announced any specific figures on a pullback before the budget was passed.

Likud Knesset member Ze’ev “Benny” Begin said over the weekend that he planned to abstain in the budget vote because he believed the bill’s defeat could delay Netanyahu from presenting the specifics of a further redeployment from the West Bank.

“If U.S. Secretary of State [Madeleine] Albright gave the prime minister a three-week extension to announce how much territory he plans to hand over to the Palestinians, it is acceptable to give him a three-month extension so he can say that he cannot hand over anything.”

As part of his efforts to round up a majority of support for the budget legislation, Netanyahu met Friday with Begin, one of his most outspoken critics. It was their first meeting since Begin resigned from the Cabinet in January to protest the Hebron agreement.

Israeli media have estimated that at least 10 coalition members, a number sufficient to assure the bill’s defeat, were considering voting against the budget — or abstaining from or not participating in the vote.

Much of the dispute regarding the budget has centered on government-proposed changes to Israel’s national health law.

Foreign Minister David Levy threatened last week to resign if the Cabinet approved the changes, which include charging the public fees for using certain medical services.

Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman was reported to be considering resigning if the budget framework is broken. Ne’eman said he would not cave in to what he termed “sectored interests.”

Coalition members have used the budget deliberations in recent days as leverage to demand spending in other areas related to their specific interests.

The National Religious Party, after talks with Netanyahu on Sunday, said it would back the budget if the premier made good on promises for additional funds for education and building bypass roads in the territories.

Netanyahu said Sunday that he believed coalition demands would be resolved as soon as the health issue was rectified.

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