Behind the Headlines Rabin Under Fire As Ferment Mounts in the Labor Alignment

The ferment which bubbled to the surface in the Labor Alignment at its Knesset caucus last Tuesday presents Premier Yitzhak Rabin with his toughest challenge since assuming the Premiership in June, 1974. For the first time since then there have been whispers among leading Laborites–albeit gravely exaggerated by the press–about the possibility of replacing Rabin with a more party-minded and less stubborn leader.

At the faction caucus Tuesday, Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres found themselves, under sharp attack from Mapam, from Laborite doves, and also and more importantly, from a number of middle-of-the-road ex-Mapai politicians who comprise the backbone of the Alignment.

The immediate issue was the Sebastia “compromise”–permitting 30 families to remain in the Samaria area–but the bitterness of the attacks reflected a welling-up of anger and disgruntlement that has its roots in long months of party dissatisfaction with the Premier. All along, party stalwarts have had the feeling that Rabin is in effect ignoring them and deliberately excluding them from the decision-making process.

It was to assuage these feelings that Rabin announced, some months ago, the creation of the “leadership forum” (“naforum hamovil”) which was to comprise Labor ministers, top Knesseters and party key men and Histadrut leaders. It met once or twice and has petered out. Its stillbirth added fuel to the flames of party anger.

DECISION-MAKING VIRTUALLY NIL

The Golda Meir “Kitchen Cabinet” had come under scathing attack from the Agranat Committee because it was essentially undemocratic. But at least it gave an opportunity to some Labor ministers to contribute input into political decision-making. Under Rabin there is virtually no such opportunity at all. He makes his decisions alone, or with the help of a few advisors.

These last, the advisors, are another cause of discontent within the party. Rabin’s choice–particularly of Arik Sharon as his “general advisor” and Rehavam Zeevi as his “intelligence, advisor”–is seen as deliberately riding roughshod over party sensibilities. Sharon, after all, is a leading Likud politician with well-known right-wing-views, and Zeevi, although he never made a political career (having been a serving general till recently) is believed to hold similar views.

Furthermore, what many consider to be Rabin’s blundering, bludgeoning attempt at Cabinet reform, involving the effective demotion of Party faithful and Jerusalem Labor leader Moshe Baram, is also criticized inside the party. Baram, who would lose the Labor portfolio under Babin’s proposed Cabinet reform plan and become Minister of Communications, learned about the proposal from press reports. Rabin did not even consult him before the leaks began.

Above and beyond the personal and factional gripes, however, there is a more significant factor rendering the present unrest within Labor potentially more dangerous than anything Rabin has yet known: that factor is the deep divisions between the Premier and important sections of the party on basic issued of peace and foreign policy.

RIGID IMAGE EVOKED

Rabin’s recent spate of hard-line pronouncements, on the PLO, on the Palestinians in general, on a third state and on the Security Council, among others, have left many Laborites wincing. They see their leader inevitably evolving an uncompromisingly rigid image in the world, at a time when, they believe, a measure of flexibility–at least in tactics–is urgently required.

Rabin’s adamant refusal to entertain any suggestion that the government adopt the “Yariv-Shethtov formula” on the PLO-Palestinian question–to talk with any group that recognizes Israel and desists from terror–is not understood in broad sections of his party and is seen as misguided toughness that can lead to a rift with Washington.

Notwithstanding Rabin’s reluctance to bring these issues out into the open–an understandable reluctance, since open debate would expose the deep Ideological gulfs that exist within the party and the coalition–the issues are expected to be debated in both forums.

The Labor Knesset faction, and the party’s broader policy-making bodies determined last weekend to hold full-scale political debates at which government policy will be meticulously and critically examined. The Cabinet will also have to address itself to the issues, whether in the form of a formal “political debate” or in a less formal discussion, in the near future.

Foreign Minister Yigal Allon is due to go to Washington early in January with Rabin himself to follow later in the month. Their hosts there are most likely to ask for Israel’s latest thinking on the Palestinian-PLO issue. Many Cabinet ministers, therefore, will want to discuss these issues before the Washington visits are held.

NEXT STORY