Those who withheld their votes included Meridor; former Science Minister Benny Begin; Uzi Landau, the Likud chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee; and the entire Gesher faction, a subgroup within Likud that is led by Foreign Minister David Levy. The Third Way Party, a centrist partner in Netanyahu's ruling coalition, also declined to register confidence in the prime minister's leadership.
Netanyahu's troubles are far from over. He was unable to announce a scheduled Cabinet reshuffle at the end of Tuesday's debate. Ariel Sharon, his choice for the finance portfolio, was demanding additional powers inherited from his present post as national infrastructure minister, as well as a seat in the inner peace-process team that currently is limited to Netanyahu, Levy and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.
Levy was threatening to resign from the government if Sharon were given the finance post. Another minister, Moshe Katzav, who was slated for promotion to national infrastructure from tourism, told reporters that he would not accept the loss of any functions exercised in the post by Sharon.
The Knesset was thrown into turmoil when Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi rose to defend the government's record. He also delivered a vicious personal attack on new Labor leader Ehud Barak, dubbing him "Ehud Barach" (Hebrew for "Ehud ran away") and citing a press report that Barak, as chief of staff of the armed forces, was present during a training exercise five years ago in which six elite soldiers died. The affair is being investigated by State Comptroller Justice Miriam Ben-Porat. Barak has always insisted that his task as army commander was not to carry a stretcher but to ensure that everything was being done by his subordinates to save them.
Netanyahu acknowledged afterward that the gist of the speech had been cleared with him in advance. He retorted that no one from the affronted opposition had protested when he and his family were the subject of personal abuse. In a television interview afterward, Barak said that Hanegbi had always been a "hooligan," and that the man who sent him to defend the government was little better.
Either way, Hanegbi's speech boomeranged. Former Gen. Ze'evy, who could not be further removed politically from center-left Labor, begged the justice minister to retract his assault on Barak, the most decorated war hero in Israeli military history. It was, Ze'evy argued, an insult not only to a former chief of staff but to the honor of the army as a whole. Third Way Knesset members also urged Netanyahu to repudiate his justice minister, but neither responded.
The lesson of Tuesday's debate is that the government is ready to fight dirty in order to stay in power. On the other side, Barak's maiden speech as Labor leader was hard-hitting, combative and to the point. He warned Israelis that Netanyahu's diplomacy was leading them to an unnecessary war. Many would die, yet, in the end, Israel would have to negotiate with the same Arab leaders.
Barak rejected out of hand any idea of joining a national-unity administration, led by Netanyahu. His aim was to bring down the government -- if not now, then later.
"The countdown has begun," he said. "The writing is on the wall. Only the blind cannot read it."