Trying to Form a Government: Herzog to Begin Informal Talks with Likud and Labor Leaders

President Chaim Herzog has decided to begin “informal” consultations with the two main parties tomorrow, even before official publication of the election results. Herzog will meet with Labor Alignment leaders and then with Likud leaders, according to a spokesman for the President. Other meetings have not yet been scheduled.

Under the law, the President is required to hold formal consultations with the parties after the election results are officially published.

The President’s bureau explained the decision for the meetings as stemming from his serious concern over the country’s grave situation and his ardent desire to promote the idea of a unity government as expeditiously as possible.

Political observers attach great weight to the President’s decision as to which party he will ask first to form the next government. These observers believe that the party chosen by Herzog will be significantly boosted in its chances of putting together a coalition, whether a unity coalition or a narrow-based one.

LIKUD MK CRITICIZES HERZOG

The President’s decision today triggered a furious attack on him by Likud Knesset member Ronnie Milo (Herut) who charged he was advancing the presidential consultations in order to undercut Likud’s efforts to put together an alliance with all the religious parties and thereby prevent the Likud from presenting Herzog with a solid — though still insufficient — bloc of 58 MKs supporting a Likud-led government. Milo said the Likud would not attend the informal consultations but would insist on waiting for the official publication of the election results Wednesday or Thursday.

The President’s bureau responded “with amazement” to Milo’s charges, saying that Herzog’s choice to advance the consultations had been taken after securing the approval of both Premier Yitzhak Shamir and Labor Alignment leader Shimon Peres.

The President’s bureau repeated the scheduling of the meetings tomorrow morning and made it clear that Herzog expected Likud to attend at the appointed time, since the meeting had been set up with Likud’s full knowledge and consent. Subsequently, Milo announced that Likud would attend after all.

LABOR TO ASK FOR FIRST CHANCE

On the Labor side, there was quiet approval of Herzog’s decision. Labor sources cited the grave economic situation and the need to form a government quickly. Peres is expected to argue at his meeting with Herzog that he ought to be given the first chance to form a coalition because he heads the largest party (44 Knesset seats to Likud’s 41).

Peres will argue that this tradition is only inapplicable, if at all, if the smaller party can show the President it has a solid bloc aligned with it that totals a majority of the Knesset.

This is what Shamir was able to do 10 months ago when he stepped in for Premier Menachem Begin, and presented Herzog with a list of 61 MKs prepared to continue their alliance with Likud. (The smaller parties included in that bloc of 61 duly confirmed this to the President.) Herzog, therefore, gave Shamir the task of putting together the coalition although Likud by itself had only 46 Knesset seats compared to Labor’s 50.

Likud will argue this time to Herzog that it commands more support than Labor — and therefore stands the better chance of eventually reaching the magic figure of 61, a majority of the 120-member Knesset.

Just how many supporters Likud will be able to lay claim to when it meets with Herzog is now the subject of intense political wrangling. After Shas, the new Sephardic Orthodox party which won four Knesset seats in last week’s elections, declared yesterday that it favors Likud, leaders of Likud are hoping for a “domino” effect on the other religious parties.

LABOR LEADERS WOOING SHAS

Yesterday, National Religious Party’s Yosef Burg made a statement on Israel Radio which seemed to indicate a marked preference for Likud. But last night, a Labor team, including Peres, former President Yitzhak Navon, and Shlomo Hillel met at great length with Shas’ spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former Chief Sephardic Rabbi, and were assured that Shas’ preference for Likud is not yet final, despite the earlier announcement by Shas’ Knesset leader Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz.

The Labor leaders’ meeting with Yosef, according to party sources, was to secure from him an undertaking that if Herzog asks for Shas’ response to his hypothetical choice of Peres is Premier-designate, Shas would not reject it altogether but rather would indicate willingness to negotiate with Peres.

Peres and Navon reportedly promised Yosef that a Labor government would not attempt to repeal the religious laws and regulations won by the religious parties during seven years of Likud rule — for instance, the ban on El Al Sabbath flights.

ANXIOUS FOR WEIZMAN’S NOD

Labor is anxious above all for Ezer Weizman, whose new Yahad Party won three Knesset seats in last week’s elections, not to conclude that the prospect of a Labor-led government is hopeless, in which case he would presumably decide to throw in his lot with Likud.

At the moment, Weizman, allied with Aharon Abu Hatzeira, the leader of the Tami Party which won one seat in the Knesset, is still hoping for a Labor-led unity government. But, after Shas’ move towards Likud, Weizman declined to state his preference publicly, and he is said to be under considerable pressure from pro-Likud colleagues within Yahad and also from some of his former supporters inside Herut.

Weizman, who had been Defense Minister under Likud, was reported by Israel Radio to have said over the weekend that he “cannot see himself sitting as part of a government that would not implement Camp David,” the peace agreement Israel signed with Egypt. Weizman worked with Begin in setting up the peace treaty with Egypt and later worked with President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in putting it into effect. Weizman has also stated that Likud’s policy of intensive development of the occupied territories and its reluctance to negotiate with the Arabs is contrary to his own goals.

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