TEL AVIV, Israel – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's broad-based coalition was embroiled in an internal crisis Tuesday, not over the divisive Palestinian issue but over budget allocations.
If played out, it could mean early elections, but Sharon's allies in parliament said they were confident they could stabilize the coalition.
The crisis erupted over an economic austerity package, presented to parliament for approval late Monday. Two Orthodox Jewish parties, both coalition members, failed to support the plan, and Sharon fired their representatives in his government, a move that could remove his clear majority in the 120-seat parliament, the Knesset.
However, coalition chairman Zeev Boim of Sharon's Likud party said a revote would be held Wednesday and that he was working to bring the centrist Shinui party and at least some members of the right-wing National Union into the coalition.
"I don't see elections on the horizon," he said Tuesday. He added that he was convinced that the finance bill would win easily on the revote.
Another possible way out was to reach an understanding with the two rebellious parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, that would keep them in the coalition. The dismissals take effect only at midnight Wednesday, giving Sharon time to negotiate.
However, Knesset spokesman Giora Pordes said no changes would be made to the bill when it goes to the revote, implying that no deal was in the offing. "It will be exactly the same wording," he said.
The austerity measures would have cut benefits for low-income Israelis, a group from which Shas draws much of its electoral support. The plan was defeated in parliament Monday by 47 to 44.
Shas chairman Eli Yishai said he was open to negotiating a new economic plan that would allow his party to remain in the coalition. Yishai led his party's resignation from former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's government, a move that helped bring about a prime ministerial election last year, three years early.
"It is clear that the battle with the current prime minister is different from the battle with the previous prime minister, Ehud Barak. Then, the goal was to bring down the prime minister," Yishai, the interior minister, told Israel Army Radio. "If the prime minister (Sharon) is open to negotiations we will negotiate."
Shas, with 17 seats, is the third-largest party in the parliament after Labor, with 23 seats, and Sharon's hawkish Likud with 19. United Torah Judaism has five seats.
After Monday's vote, Sharon had dismissed four Shas ministers and five deputy ministers from Shas and United Torah Judaism. The fifth Shas minister, who is not a member of parliament, said he would resign in solidarity.
Without new coalition partners, Sharon would command 60 seats -- just one legislator away from losing a vote of no confidence, which would lead to new elections.
The remaining coalition would be a shaky collection of parties at complete cross-purposes with each other, leading analysts to forecast a speedy resolution to the crisis that would reign in the rebellious parties.
"What smells like elections and looks like elections could end up being elections ... but the prime minister doesn't really want elections now," political analyst Yaron Deckel said on Israel Radio.
Finance Minister Silvan Shalom agreed. "I don't think we should have an early election now, but if we get to a situation in which we cannot manage things, then nothing has been ruled out," Shalom told Israel Radio.
Members of Sharon's coalition have opposite interests, with Labor favoring far-reaching territorial concessions to the Palestinians and the right-wing National Religious Party representing the interests of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Labor also backs a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza, while a convention of Sharon's own Likud party last week handed their leader a humiliating defeat when delegates voted in favor of a proposal -- backed by his main rival Benjamin Natanyahu -- opposing the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Some Labor members have been clamoring for their party to leave Sharon's coalition, charging that Labor is just a fig leaf for Sharon's frequent military strikes against the Palestinians.