JERUSALEM (Sep. 5)
The arduous task of putting together a new Likud-led government in the aftermath of Premier Menachem Begin’s resignation last week is expected to continue until well after the High Holy Days. Begin, who had been expected to submit his formal letter of resignation to President Chaim Herzog over the weekend, has postponed doing so at least until after Rosh Hashanah. He is apparently anxious to give Likud more time to complete negotiations with its constituent parties.
But the smaller coalition parties, aware of their strong bargaining positions, have delayed signing a coalition agreement and are laying down conditions for their participation in a new government which now has an excellent chance of being headed by Yitzhak Shamir, now the Foreign Minister. This has created an air of uncertainty.
Shamir was elected by the 900-member Herut Central Committee late Thursday night to succeed Begin. He defeated his rival, Deputy Premier David Levy, by a vote of 436-302 in what was described as an upset victory resulting from massive efforts by the Herut party machine.
Coalition chairman Avraham Shapira of the Aguda Israel party announced later that all coalition partners had signed a letter to Herzog asking him to call on Shamir to form a new government once he has Begin’s resignation.
A COALITION TACTIC
But the “letter of intent” appeared to be only a coalition tactic to forestall the possibility of Herzog calling on Labor Party chairman Shimon Peres to form a new government. The Labor Alignment is the largest Knesset faction, commanding 50 seats to Likud’s 46. That situation accounts for the bargaining strength of the smaller parties — Aguda Israel, Tehiya, National Religious Party and Tami — whose combined votes give the government its Knesset majority.
The ministerial negotiating team, headed by Levy, met Monday with representatives of the coalition partners. But fears were expressed in Likud circles that the task is growing more and more complicated. One reason is that the NRP and Tami seem to be considering an alternative coalition and their representatives have been negotiating openly with Labor.
The four Aguda MKs have also spoken in favor of “negotiating” with the Alignment. Mordechai Ben Porat of Telem, a Minister-Without-Portfolio, is scheduled to meet with Peres in an effort to convince the Labor leader to join Likud in a national unity government.
SOME DIFFICULTIES AHEAD
Shamir, meanwhile, met with the coalition parties Sunday in what was described as an “atmosphere of animosity and suspicion. ” The fact that no coalition agreement has been signed more than a week after Begin announced his intention to resign has worried Likud. Begin, by hinting that he might turn in his resignation to the President at any time, seemed to be putting pressure on his coalition partners to strike a deal quickly.
Energy Minister Yitzhak Modai of Likud’s Liberal Party wing, said Monday that if a coalition agreement had been signed immediately after Begin announced he would resign, a new government could have been formed without delay. As matters stand now, there are difficulties, he said.
A senior Herut source was quoted by Yediot Achronot Monday as saying “Things are not that simple. We are no longer that confident that Shamir will succeed in forming a government.”
But Deputy Premier Levy has discounted the negotiations between the smaller coalition elements and Labor, He said there was no reason to panic because Likud’s partners were talking to the opposition. He said he fully trusted earlier statements by the partners that they preferred to be members of a Likud-led coalition than one headed by Labor.
ALIGNMENT EXPRESSES CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM
Nevertheless, the coalition partners, except the ultra-nationalist Tehiya, are continuing discussions with Labor Alignment leaders. Alignment sources expressed “cautious optimism” that their prospects of forming a new government were no less than Likud’s. Six Likud Liberals and representatives of the NRP and Tami have indicated they are at least considering such a possibility.
Tami, whose constituency is the Sephardic community, said it would press Likud for full implementation of the social clauses in the coalition platform still to be hammered out. Aguda Israel spokesmen said their signatures on a coalition agreement depended on “Full and complete fulfillment of all outstanding coalition agreements,” including the controversial “Who is a Jew” issue which is opposed by Liberal Party members.
ANOTHER TROUBLING FACTOR
Another troubling factor is reports of a deal between Shamir and former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, now a Minister-Without-Portfolio, according to which Sharon was promised the chairmanship of the influential Ministerial Settlement Committee. That would put him in charge of settlement activities on the West Bank.
This is opposed by the Liberals, who want the post for their man, Minister of Agriculture-designate Pessah Grupper, and by Tehiya, which wants it for their leader, Science Minister Yuval Neeman.
Moreover, a comeback by Sharon is strongly opposed by Liberal Party doves headed by Yitzhak Berman and Dror Seigerman. Levy, for his part, has promised to support Shamir despite their bitter rivalry for the Likud leadership before the party vote last Thursday, Shamir has vowed to continue the policies laid down by Begin. He said he regarded his appointment as a “temporary trusteeship” which he would readily hand back to Begin whenever the latter wishes.
It is considered unlikely that Begin, who recently turned 70 and is not in the best of health, would agree to resume the Premiership at a later date. There were reports this week, however, that Begin does not intend to withdraw entirely from political life for the time being. According to the reports, he will continue to serve as a Knesset member.