JERUSALEM (Aug. 31)
A fight to decide on a successor to Premier Menachem Begin has broken out within the top echelon circles of his Herut Party. Several hours after Begin told party stalwarts and other leading representatives of the Likud coalition that he will not reverse his decision to resign, Herut Cabinet ministers and senior party officials met here in special session last night and continued today.
Ministers stressed that the discussion to name a successor would also have to entail the how and the where for deciding on a candidate acceptable to all the parties and factions comprising the Likud coalition Although earlier yesterday party officials said it appeared certain that Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir would be the party’s candidate, Deputy Premier David Levy said last night that “all options are open. When the debate starts there will be more than one candidate.”
While Shamir’s supporters want the choice of the candidate to be discussed by small inner forums of the party, Levy’s supporters for his candidacy feel he has a better chance of success in the larger party central committee. Levy has many grass root supporters in the central committee while Shamir, a veteran member of the “fighting family, ” has more support among the top party functionaries.
Supporters of Ariel Sharon, former Defense Minister and now Minister Without Portfolio, also feel he has a chance if the vote in the central committee is by secret ballot. But they gave him little chance if the discussion takes place in the smaller forums.
A DECISION MUST BE MADE SOON
In any event, there is a general feeling in the Herut hierarchy that some decision on a candidate must be made at most within a day or two to avoid growing rancor and disunity among the coalition groupings, thus paralyzing a unified decision and thereby creating a basis for the Labor Alignment being called upon to form a new government.
Once a candidate is chosen, the party will try to put together a list of at least 61 Knesset members who will support a new Likud-led coalition headed by an agreed upon candidate. Begin could then take this list with him when he hands his letter of resignation to President Chaim Herzog, with the suggestion that the list be accepted as the new coalition.
If the delay in naming a candidate for the Premiership and getting together a Knesset list extends too long — even a few days — Begin may feel that he must submit his formal resignation without a proposed coalition. In that case, Herzog may have no alternative but to call on Shimon Peres, as the leader of the Labor Alignment, the largest party in the Knesset, to suggest an alternative government within 21 days with the possibility of extending this period for another 21 days.
Peres, who kept a low profile since Begin announced his intention to resign last Sunday to a stunned Cabinet, broke his silence and that of the Labor Party last night. He told an Israel Television interviewer he was doing so now because it was “evident beyond doubt” that Begin was resigning. Peres said the most urgent need at the moment was “to end the crisis. We are beset with major problems — in Lebanon and in the economy — and the most urgent need is to establish a wide coalition which can deal immediately with those problems.” He said he was confident the Labor Alignment could establish such a wide coalition.
Peres said that no official contacts had yet been made with possible coalition parties, but unofficial talks indicated that some of the smaller parties, at least, would cooperate with Labor.
Asked how this jibed with party reports that they would continue with the Likud, Peres replied: “That was yesterday. What we are now dealing with is today and tomorrow.”
Peres said he had “personal respect for Begin the man” but not for his policies. “I agree with him on one thing — he described the war in Lebanon as a tragedy, and I agree with that.” Asked how he estimated his “Likud rivals,” Peres said; “They are not my rivals at the moment. They are their own rivals.”
AWAITING THE RESULTS OF THE DEBATE
Meanwhile, leaders of the various coalition parties said they were awaiting the results of the debate within Herut on procedures to name a successor to Begin and for a successor to then be named. While expressing general support for the present coalition, even under a new head, some coalition leaders agreed that a new situation has been created.
Agudat Israel spokesmen noted that “the Likud without Begin is not the same Likud,” and some party leaders have hinted that if the struggle for the succession within Herut goes on for too long, they may consider an approach by the Labor Alignment if Peres is called on by the President to build a new government.
Editorials in the Israeli press adopted a wait-and-see attitude for the first few days after Begin announced his resignation, postponing hard comment until the Premier submits his formal resignation. But today some editorials began to edge toward harder comments.
The Jerusalem Post stated that it is to Begin’s credit that he carried through his intention to resign and did not waver in the face of an “unprecedented orgy of personal adoration by breast-beating supplicants imploring him to stay on.” It added that “Likud without Begin, even without one who feels he can no longer carry the burden of leadership, will not be the some. Among his putative successors there is not one who begins to measure up to Mr. Begin in stature, let alone popularity.”
The independent Haaretz said Begin’s resignation was a sad end to the career of a man who had finally achieved power after 29 years in opposition, made even sadder by the infighting in his party for his successor.
The National Religious Party’s daily, Hatzofeh, said that a united coalition government would have weighty problems to deal with, not the least of which would be the economic and social problems. If such a government could not begin to cope with these prob- lems at once, early elections would be preferable in order to get the kind of government that would be responsive to these needs.
The Histadrut’s daily, Davar, stated that however urgent the establishment of a new coalition was, it should not be formed “at any price, at the demand of each and every small coalition partner.” Without Begin at the helm, the editorial continued, “the magic has passed and the glue has run out.”
Comments by people on the street quoted by the Israeli media have been along predictable political and ethnic lines. In general, the Sephardim tend to regard Begin as a “father” who they thought would never desert them. A resident of Kiryat Shmoneh, a predominately Sephardic town, referred to the “panic” among the residents following the first reports of Begin’s intention to resign.