JERUSALEM -- This is the nightmare for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin: He returns from Washington where President Clinton and the world watched him sign the latest accord with the Palestinians, only to have his own parliament reject it.
The scenario is a real possibility. Mr. Rabin's lieutenants scrambled yesterday to try to bolster the government's support for the agreement before Thursday's vote or parliament.
Mr. Rabin can count on no more than a one- or two-vote margin of approval.
And maybe not even that.
"We will have a majority of one," said Eli Dayan, deputy foreign minister and a member of the Knesset.
"The self-confidence [of the government] is definitely unfounded," Moshe Katsav, head of the opposition faction in the Knesset, countered. "They have reason to be more concerned than we do. The tendency is in our favor."
Mr. Rabin has won many crucial votes with razor-thin margins in the 120-member Knesset, and the betting here is that he will win this one also.
But one member of his camp already has announced his opposition, and as many as three more are wavering in their support for the agreement.
Their defection could deal Mr. Rabin a nasty surprise, potentially scuttling the agreement and his government.
"I think if the agreement failed, or even if it was a 60-60 tie, the government could not enforce the agreement and would have to resign," said Claude Klein, a constitutional law expert at Hebrew University.
If the government resigns, it has the opportunity of trying to regroup with new coalition partners and may prompt an early election. Israel's next election is now set for November 1996.
None of this is legally required. Unlike most countries, there is no requirement in Israel that an international agreement be ratified by the parliament. But ever since then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin brought the 1978 Camp David accords to the Knesset to bolster support, prime ministers have felt obliged to follow the practice.
If they tried to skip the custom, the Knesset could call for a no-confidence vote on the matter. That would legally bring down the government if it lost.
The Knesset, reflecting Israeli society, seems perpetually evenly divided. Mr. Rabin's Labor Party has a coalition with other parties that gives it only 63 votes in the 120-seat parliament.
But now Knesset members Emanuel Zissman and Avigdor Kahalani, both of Mr. Rabin's Labor party, have suggested they will vote against the agreement to begin Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
And Alex Goldfarb, who joined the coalition as a part of a new faction, Yi'ud, is said to be wavering.
If Mr. Rabin's side lost the support of all three, the vote could end in a tie. And at least one other Labor member, Avi Yehezkel, is thinking of abstaining, which would further cut into the government's support.
"We are working with two more. We are convincing them," claimed Mr. Katsav of Likud. None of the opposition is expected to support the agreement.
Some of those wavering are worried that the agreement gives the Palestinians too much. Others are seen to be taking advantage of the close vote for political purposes.
Mr. Zissman, for example, already is on the outs with the Labor Party and may be positioning himself to run with a different faction. Mr. Goldfarb is said to be angling for a diplomatic post. Mr. Yehezkel is being investigated for possible misuse of union money and may be looking for political capital in case he is charged.
In the past, Mr. Rabin has made trade-offs and political rewards to secure his majority, and he is expected to hold meetings with some of the potential rebels when he returns to Israel.
"If they can't win this vote, then the government is in a very, very tough situation," said Professor Klein. "They're going to be working very hard on it."