JERUSALEM (Feb. 21)
Premier Golda Meir began today the task of filling Cabinet posts in the first minority government in Israel’s history. She informed President Ephraim Katzir last night –and later informed the nation on television–that she will head a Cabinet based on the Labor Alignment’s 51 Knesset seats plus four seats of the Independent Liberal Party and three of Labor affiliated Arab lists (Progress and Development and Bedouin and Villagers). These will assure her new government of only 58 votes, less than a simple majority in the 120-member Knesset.
The establishment of a minority government with all of its attendant risks was forced on the Premier late yesterday when the National Religious Party, acting under orders of the Chief Rabbinate Council, refused to join a Labor-led coalition on the basis of a compromise to defer resolution of the controversial “Who is a Jew” issue for one year. The NRP’s 10 Knesset seats Were essential to the formation of a majority coalition. But Mrs. Meir would have lost the participation of both the ILP and the Mapam faction of the Labor Alignment had she bowed to Orthodox demands for a commitment to amend the Law of Return. The Premier asked the President for, and was granted, one week to form her new Cabinet. She said she would leave open three portfolios for the NRP should it reconsider and decide to join the government but indicated they would not be left open indefinitely.
In her statement informing Katzir of her decision to form a narrow-based government, Mrs. Meir expressed “regret that in spite of many efforts of the many people conducting negotiations” it was impossible to reach an accord with the NRP because of the “Who is a Jew” issue. “I am sorry I cannot bring you something more complete,” she said. It was apparent that Premier Meir decided to risk a minority government rather than ask for an extension of time to form a broader coalition because of the urgency of impending foreign policy decisions. U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger is due in the Middle East next Monday to begin a new round of personal diplomacy aimed at getting Israel-Syria disengagement talks started. Mrs. Meir and her Labor Party colleagues felt it was essential that a new government rather than the old care-taker regime negotiate with Kissinger.
But the view was expressed in some circles today that while Israel needed more than ever a government capable of taking clear, bold decisions and seizing the diplomatic initiative, it has gotten instead one whose diplomatic freedom of maneuver will be circumscribed by the lack of a parliamentary majority. It was clear to everybody that Mrs. Meir will need the strongest possible Cabinet. The participation of Defense Minister Moshe Dayan remained doubtful today although the Premier expressed optimism that Dayan would ultimately reconsider his decision not to join the new government. Dayan met with Mrs. Meir yesterday afternoon and reiterated his unwillingness to participate in the Cabinet “under present conditions”–meaning that he did not feel he had sufficient support within the Labor Party. Nevertheless, Dayan’s old Rafi faction is going along with the formation of a minority government despite its oft stated preference for a national unity coalition that would include Likud.
The NRP meanwhile was in a state of disarray and bitter recriminations were exchanged last night between its various factions. Except for a brief period in the 1950s, the NRP was always represented in Israeli governments and had exerted influence, particularly on religious matters, far out of proportion to its minority status. But yesterday it was clearly out maneuvered in what was obviously a struggle to enhance the power of Israel’s Orthodox religious establishment. “Hoisted on its own petard,” said one newspaper headline today commenting on the NRP’s recent tactics. Party leaders who had been ready to join a Labor-led government on the basis of compromise on the “Who is a Jew” issue were particularly bitter toward their colleague, Yitzhak Rafael, whose idea it had been in the first place to consult the Chief Rabbinate on the matter. It became obvious, in the light of hindsight, that this had been a momentous blunder.
As soon us Mrs. Meir announced her decision, speculation began on who would fill her Cabinet seats, particularly who would be asked to serve as Defense Minister if Dayan refuses to reconsider his decision not to serve. The names of two former chiefs of staff–Gen. Haim Barlev who is Minister of Commerce and industry in the outgoing government, and Gen. Yitzhak Rabin, former Ambassador to Washington–topped the list of possibilities. Also mentioned was Transport Minister Shimon Peres who served as Deputy Defense Minister years ago when David Ben Gurion held the Defense post as well as the Premiership.
Mrs. Meir will also have to find candidates to fill other key Cabinet posts that have become or will soon become vacant. Justice Minister Yaacov Shimshon Shapiro left the Cabinet immediately after the Yom Kippur War. Labor Minister Yosef Almogi is leaving to become Mayor of Haifa and Housing Minister Zeev Sharef is retiring from public life. All three belong to Mrs. Meir’s old Mapai faction. Knesset member Haim Zadok was mentioned today as the likely replacement for Shapiro. Former Tel Aviv Mayor Yehoshua Rabinowitz or Moshe Bar-Am, the Labor whip in the Knesset, have been mentioned for Sharef’s post. Deputy Minister of Absorption Shlomo Rosen is expected to replace retiring Natan Peled. Both belong to Mapam. The ILP, which has only one Cabinet post in the outgoing government–Minister of Tourism Moshe Kol–may receive another to be filled by Gideon Hausner.