By David Landau (Oct. 18)
Premier Yitzhak Shamir managed to overcome the first internal crisis that threatened his new government when his nominee for Finance Minister, Yigal Cohen-Orgad, won approval by the Knesset today.
But he did so only after a tough confrontation with Likud’s Liberal Party wing which wanted the Treasury portfolio for one of its own men but couldn’t agree on a candidate and was forced to back down when Shamir reportedly threatened to resign.
The messy struggle, barely a week after Shamir’s government was installed, reflected in many ways the problems of the new coalition and the elements that Shamir must keep in delicate balance if the coalition is to survive.
Among these are interparty rivalries; rivalries within the coalition parties themselves, particularly the Liberals who appear irreparably torn by internal discord; and the ideological dimension epitomized by the ultra-nationalist Tehiya Party and the far right-wing of Herut.
They demonstrated their ability to veto any candidate not to their liking when they easily quashed Likud attempts to bring former Defense Minister Ezer Weizman back into government. Weizman, closely associated with the Camp David accords and the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, is anathema to the far right.
POWERFUL DESIRE TO AVOID EARLY ELECTIONS
Hovering over the new government like a thunder cloud is the very serious and ongoing economic crisis. It is likely to remain a backdrop to Shamir’s administration, at least for the first few months of its tenure.
Yet there is one element on the credit side of Shamir’s future balance sheet which may well outweigh all of the difficulties: The new government, despite its lack of cohesion is held together by a powerful desire on the part of all of its components to avoid early elections. That is why, when Shamir reportedly threatened to resign if his nominee for Finance Minister was opposed, a shudder went through coalition ranks.
The relentless haggling for concessions which preceded the coalition’s formation and continued during its first week in office, suddenly stopped. Shamir’s resignation would have made immediate the prospect of early elections from which the coalition partners recoil in horror.
They are expected to set aside their rivalries and stand fast to defeat a Labor opposition motion for early elections which will soon come before the Knesset.
‘STRENGTH THROUGH WEAKNESS SYNDROME’
Observers have termed this powerful glue binding together the disparate elements of the Shamir government “the strength through weakness syndrome.” It has been an underlying political reality in Israel since the 1981 elections when Likud was returned to office with a razor-thin majority.
The unpopular war in Lebanon, the decline and departure of Menachem Begin and the worsening economic situation have rendered the strength through weakness rationale more powerful in recent months.
Each of the partners in the 64-member Knesset coalition is anxious to put off a confrontation with the electorate as long as legally possible. The government’s term officially ends in 1985. They are united on this — though on little else — for different reasons.
Likud, by far the largest and strongest component of the coalition, knows that it would be punished by the voters for fouling up the economy and for the embroilment in Lebanon to which no end is in sight.
Israelis, even those not schooled in the complexities of economic theory, realize now that the buying spree of consumer durables encouraged by the government to ensure its re-election in 1981, is proving a costly mistake.
For some, it will cost their jobs as the inevitable recession that lies ahead leads to business failures and unemployment. For everyone, the outlook now is a sudden and drastic lowering of living standards and a period of economic retrenchment and uncertainty.
According to some observers, this is the optimistic prognosis, based on the assumption that the government, with a new Finance Minister, can curb the country’s headlong economic decline and restore a modicum of public trust and confidence. Other prognoses are so grim as not to bear thinking about.
As for the involvement in Lebanon, this will be the second winter that Israeli troops, regulars and reservists, find themselves snowbound in that tortured land, not quite understanding why they are there or who their enemy is.
Granted that the recent redeployment from the dangerous Shouf mountains to the south has relieved some political pressure, there is still massive resentment toward the government over what is now widely viewed as an ill-conceived adventure from the start.
Likud, therefore, is plainly interested in postponing the judgement day at the ballot box in the hope that by 1985 political, military and economic conditions will have improved.
CONCERNS OF THE SMALLER PARTIES
The smaller coalition parties share the same concerns to some extent. But each has its own particular motives to avoid elections now.
The National Religious Party is in an advanced state of deterioration. Interfactional feuds have ripped it apart. The NRP lost half of its Knesset mandates in the 1981 elections and has not recovered. The defection of Rabbi Haim Druckman, an extreme hardliner who now sits in the Knesset as an independent, has reduced the NRP to five seats. Opinion polls show that if elections are held now, they would prove fatal to the party.
Tami, which represents a low-income Sephardic constituency, did well in 1981 when it won three Knesset seats. But at that time, its leader and founder, Aharon Abu-Hatzeira, was still seen as the victim of a judicial witchhunt in Sephardic circles.
Today, according to political pundits and pollsters, that image has largely evaporated. Abu-Hatzeira, convicted of misusing charitable funds, is currently serving a three month sentence.
In a new election, Tami would be hard pressed to retain its three seats. It is, therefore, casting about for a popular issue. That explains its aggressive demands on Shamir for concessions to the poor. The more time it has to hammer out a new platform, the better its chances.
The Aguda Israel party and Tehiya have basically stable constituencies. For Aguda, which stands to the right of the NRP, it is the Orthodox community; and for Tehiya, the settlers in the West Bank. Both are loyal and these parties have less to fear from voter defection than the others.
But elections could well mean the end of the present precarious coalition. They might give one or the other of the big blocs — Labor or Likud — a solid majority. In that eventuality, the Aguda and Tehiya parties would be deprived of their leverage as holders of the balance of power and of their ability to extract concessions from whatever party heads the government.
Tehiya is especially fearful that early elections might return Labor to power. That would mean a return to a restrictive and selective West Bank settlement policy in place of the present government’s unrestricted settlement drive in the territories. From Tehiya’s standpoint, it is better to stick with Likud regardless of frequent disputes within the coalition.
That maxim seems to guide the political aims of all of the coalition partners and leading analysts have predicted that however weak and wobbly it may look, Shamir’s coalition will survive its full term.