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Sitting in the secluded coffee shop in the basement of the Knesset this week, a group of MKs said they couldn't help noticing how much the current mood in the building reminded them of the weeks prior to Ariel Sharon's establishment of the Kadima Party. The MKs, who hailed from the Likud, Israel Beitenu and the National Union-National Religious parties, joked that their coffee break could be mistaken for secret talks to form some sort of new right-wing bloc.
"It's exactly the same as nine months ago when it became clear Sharon was forming his own party," said the MK from the Likud. "It was so tense... every conversation you had meant you were leaving your party or God knows what else. But we are used to earthquakes. And let's face it: We've seen quite a few of them lately... Maybe you flinch the first time, but now you know the drill and you know how to take cover."
Indeed, this week, seismic political activity picked up once more. But few are sure whether they are feeling the aftershock of the original quake, or a new rumbling altogether.
The two leading parties in the coalition, Kadima and Labor, are experiencing internal tremors. While Labor's rebellion is more serious - a major uprising against party leader Defense Minister Amir Peretz has been gathering steam for several months now - Kadima might see a number of MKs abscond or change their allegiances for other political options.
According to one theory, the leaders of the Labor rebellion are wooing unhappy Kadima MKs away from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to create a bigger, better Labor Party lineup. According to another, high-ranking Kadima members - such as Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit - are plotting against Olmert and planning to bring in their own big names to bolster their race for the party leadership.
"It's all intrigue right now, and who knows how much of it is fantasy and how much is actually in the pipelines?" said one Kadima MK who describes himself as being "caught in the middle."
Whether Olmert ultimately locks Labor more securely into the fold or kicks it out to make room for the right-wing parties appears to be anybody's guess, said the MK.
WHATEVER HAPPENS to the coalition, its fault lines are already clear: the 2007 budget and Olmert's decision to forgo a State Commission of Inquiry into the government's handling of the war.
While the inquiry commission issue is making more public waves - at this point two-thirds of Knesset members are opposing Olmert for refusing to launch the inquiry - it is the budget vote that appears to represent the true quake threat to the coalition.
All of Kadima's coalition partners threatened to leave the government after the Finance Ministry presented its draft of the budget this week. Though Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson declared Wednesday night that the crisis over the budget was over, few MKs seem to think matters are quite that simple.
"The question of the budget is really a question about the values of this government," said MK Ami Ayalon, one of the leaders of the Labor Party rebellion. "This government has no platform and therefore no value system."
Kadima's coalition partners - Labor, Shas and the Pensioners Party - have all said that the budget fundamentally lacks the socioeconomic values they hold dear. Hirchson, on the other hand, feels he is being realistic and trying to free up the funds to cover Israel's costly military operations in southern Lebanon and the repercussions of the conflict.
Peretz has already said that he has drawn a "red line" where Hirchson's intention to freeze the minimum wage is concerned, declaring that he will leave the coalition if that line is crossed. (Ever since his pre-election campaigning, Peretz has insisted that he intends to have the monthly minimum wage raised to $1,000.) Many of his party members appear ready to bolt the government over less dramatic infringements of their financial policy goals.
MKs Shelly Yacimovich and Avishay Braverman have both said that they see "no possible way for Labor to support this budget."
As newcomers to the party, their opinions might not ordinarily hold too much weight. But they happen to represent Labor in the Knesset Finance Committee, the key authority which revises the budget and votes on it before the Knesset as a whole votes to approve it.
It wouldn't be the first time a government has fallen over the budget. Indeed, the previous Knesset was dispersed when it became clear that it would be impossible for the coalition to pass the budget. And the most clearly defined laws for dispersing parliament and holding early elections are based on a failure to pass the budget.
While the law states that the budget must be approved by January 1 of the new fiscal year, the Knesset can extend its deadline by three months, to March 31. If the budget has not been approved by that date, the Knesset is automatically dispersed and the country goes to elections.
While Olmert is still far from feeling the pressure of that deadline, there's no doubting the potential for earthquakes on the road to approving the 2007 budget.
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