Jerusalem (Jul. 15)
Premier Menachem Begin, formally summoned by President Yitzhak Navon today to form a new government, lost no time beginning that task. He met this afternoon with leaders of Likud’s Liberal Party wing. He will start coalition talks tomorrow with the National Religious Party, with the Aguda Israel Party on Friday and with Aharon Abu Hatzeira’s Tami faction Sunday. He said today that he hoped to have his new Cabinet ready for presentation to the Knesset within two weeks.
The three religious parties, with 13 Knesset seats between them, would give Begin the 61-seat Knesset majority he needs to govern. Danny Vermus, Secretary General of the NRP, told reporters last might that he expected negotiations with his party to be completed in a week. But the controversial “Who is a Jew” amendment to the Law of Return may complicate Begin’s efforts.
Some elements of the NRP were reported today to be insisting that the party demand a guarantee from Begin that the amendment will be adopted as its price for joining his coalition. The NRP is under heavy pressure from the Chief Rabbinate and from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson in New York, to hold out for a commitment to amend the law. The focus shifted to the NRP after the ultra-Orthodox Aguda
Israel’s “Council of Sages” took a surprisingly moderate position, agreeing not to press the issue in coalition talks.
They did so after Begin declared flatly this week that he would not force the non-Orthodox members of his party to support the amendment which has drawn angry protests from leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism here and abroad. Observers believe that Begin and the Aguda will agree to “try their best” to have the amendment adopted without any commitment from Begin on Likud’s behalf.
LIBERAL PARTY SEEKING PORTFOLIOS
Leaders of the Liberal Party, meanwhile, appeared less concerned with issues than with obtaining portfolios in the new Begin Cabinet. They have already been barred from the most powerful posts which are reserved for Herut hardliners. Ariel Sharon, the most vociferous hawk in the outgoing government, is virtually certain to be appointed Defense Minister.
Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Finance Minister Yoram Aridor are expected to retain those posts and Yaacov Meridor, a millionaire businessman and close friend of Begin from his Irgun days, is slated to be named economic “coordinator.”
This leaves few jobs of any real influence for the Liberals. Their leader, Simcha Ehrlich, has been promised that he will remain Deputy Premier, an office he shared in the last government with Yigael Yadin of the now defunct Democratic Movement, who has retired from politics.
Moshe Nissim, another Liberal front-runner, will stay on as Justice Minister. Energy Minister Yitzhak Modai is expected by informed sources to be installed as Minister of Commerce, a promotion in Cabinet ranks, albeit a slight one.