Begin, Peres Both Court Religious Parties in Efforts to Form Government

Premier Menachem Begin and Labor Alignment leader Shimon Peres were both trying to put together a governing coalition today in the aftermath of the closest elections in Israel’s history. Their efforts were centered on the National Religious Party and the Aguda Israel bloc which, despite their minority status, hold the balance of power in any new government because neither of the major parties won a decisive mandate from the electorate.

According to the latest, but still incomplete vote count, the Labor Alignment will have 50 Knesset seats to 49 for Likud.

Although Begin appears to have much better prospects of forming an alliance with the Orthodox parties, Peres has not given up. Yosef Burg, who remains the titular head of NRP if no longer its all-powerful chief, was due to meet with Peres in Tel Aviv today to see what kind of bargain he can strike with a Labor-led government. Laborite Haim Zadok was also meeting today with his close friend, Avraham Shapiro of the Aguda Israel Party on coalition possibilities.

At the same time, Begin is meeting with Aguda leaders here. He met with Burg yesterday and intimated last night that they had reached an agreement. But Burg was non-committal and more bargaining seems likely. Paradoxically, the NRP which suffered a major defeat in Tuesday’s Knesset elections –reduced from 12 to 6 seats according to the latest vote count–has emerged in a more powerful political position because it is essential to the formation of a coalition by either Peres or Begin.

LABOR PONDERS NEXT MOVES

The Labor Alignment agrees that every effort should be made to unseat Begin’s Likud. But it is also determined not to seek a coalition “at any price.” Alignment leaders seem to be of two minds with respect to how far to go to oust Likud.

Some Laborites argue that an all-out effort should be made because a Likud-Religious coalition could easily survive for a full four year term given their ideological affinities on foreign policy and social issues. They argue further that if Likud is forced into the opposition, it will eventually disintegrate because of internal strains.

But others claim that a narrowly based Likud-Religious coalition will not survive long trying to cope with the immense economic, political and social challenges it faces, such as galloping inflation and the scheduled final withdrawal from Sinai next April. According to this view, Labor is better off in the opposition while Likud and its partners flounder, bringing on early elections that would restore the Alignment to power with a strong mandate.

If Begin does form the next Cabinet, he is expected to face a serious power struggle among his colleagues competing for the most important portfolios. Speculation was rife today that Begin will insist on retaining the Defense Ministry for himself. His office issued a statement this morning declaring that such reports, published in the press, were “unfounded.” A spokesman for Begin said the Premier intended to conduct coalition negotiations in two stages and that only after reaching agreements with his partners would he discuss the distribution of Cabinet portfolios.

Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, an outspoken hawk, reportedly demanded that Begin designate him Defense Minister before the elections. Begin refused. Sharon had been his choice for the post after Ezer Weizman resigned last year but he was opposed by virtually all other Cabinet members because of his extremist views. Begin’s associates were denying today that Sharon had been promised the Defense post in the next Cabinet.

If Begin continues to serve as Defense Minister, Mordechai Zipori will probably continue as his deputy. Zipori has made it clear that he would challenge any other candidate should Begin relinquish that portfolio.

The Liberal Party bloc in Likud is expected to insist on one of the key portfolios — Defense, Foreign Ministry or Treasury. They are unlikely to get the defense post or the Treasury which will probably remain with Herut’s Yoram Aridor. In that case, they will demand the Foreign Ministry for Yitzhak Modai who is Energy Minister in the outgoing government.

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