You know the coalition is in trouble when the person it can trust most is a member of the opposition.
On Monday afternoon, Knesset Finance Committee chairman Ya'acov Litzman sat on the sofa outside his office and chatted with reporters. Three hectic weeks of budget debates were behind him; he had shepherded the endless chapters and clauses through all the committee stages. In another hour he was due to present the budget to the Knesset plenum and later in the week, vote against it.
"It doesn't matter how I vote, the budget will get through anyway," he said, "but the coalition is another matter. I don't see how it can carry on like this."
Labor's Shelly Yacimovich was the coalition's most visible internal opposition during the budget debates, steadfastly refusing to vote according to the government's guidelines and achieving significant changes, but she was far from being the coalition's only worry.
Labor chairman Amir Peretz stressed at the beginning of his party's Knesset faction meeting that Yacimovich's gains had been made in the name of the entire party, but he realizes that he's no longer seen as a leader capable of delivering his party's entire 19 votes when the coalition needs them.
Peretz is battling dissent on two fronts, on the left, the social dissidents like Yacimovich and Yoram Marciano, and on the right, the group of five MKs who on Monday held their second meeting to plot how to weaken Peretz's and secretary-general Eitan Cabel's control over the party.
But the leading party also has its worries. And it's not only MK Marina Solodkin's threats to abstain or even vote against the budget as part of her drawn-out protest at not being appointed a minister. Kadima members are beginning to whisper that coalition chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki is proving incapable of keeping the troops in line.
While the other senior members of Kadima and the other coalition parties have received ministries and Knesset committees, Yitzhaki was given the unenviable job of acting like a schoolmaster to the restless junior MKs.
"I can't carry on like this on my own," he complained a few days ago. Yitzhaki managed a successful accounting firm before being handpicked by Ariel Sharon to serve as director-general of the Prime Minister's Office and is seen as an extremely capable operator, but he's used to working at the top of a well-ordered hierarchy. A parliamentary democracy is a totally different matter.
Yitzhaki's problem during the budget saga was that he had perfect command of the various sub-clauses but very little control over his coalition MKs. There were moments during the marathon debates of the last few days when it seemed that Yitzhaki was about to strangle Yacimovich when once again she refused to toe the line.
Towards the end, Yitzhaki had had enough with his unreliable coalition partners and secretly made deals with two opposition parties, Israel Beitenu and the National Religious Party-National Union, which promised to abstain during the vote instead of voting against, in return for NIS 300 million to national-religious education and immigrant welfare.
With that insurance policy, no Labor or Kadima rebel can threaten the coalition's majority in the crucial vote. But buying off opponents is the kind of thing that coalitions do when they're at the end of their lifespan. Ehud Olmert's coalition is only a month old.
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