JERUSALEM (Aug. 5)
President Chaim Herzog today gave Labor Party leader Shimon Peres the task of forming a government, stressing repeatedly as he did so that the nation desired a government of national unity.
Peres, in his brief acceptance speech, pledged to try and form a unity government. But he made it clear that he would try to form a Labor-led government even if Likud refused in the end to join in a unity government.
Premier Yitzhak Shamir, the Likud leader, responded favorably to Peres’ call for continued unity talks. But at the same time, Shamir is going ahead with negotions with the small parties with the objective of eventually creating a Likud-led coalition.
By the same token, Peres and his Labor lieutenants are also continuing their consultations with various small parties aimed at keeping open the option of a Labor-led narrow-based coalition, if the unity effort fails.
WEEK-LONG SERIES OF CONSULTATIONS
Herzog asked Peres to form a government following a week-long series of consultations and meetings with Likud and Labor leaders, as well as with leaders of the other Knesset parties, with the exception of the Kach Party headed by Rabbi Meir Kahane. On Friday, 60 Knesset members asked Herzog to choose Peres to form a government while 54 asked the President to give Shamir the first chance. Five MKs called for a national unity government but without indicating who should head it.
The surprise last Friday was Yigael Hurwitz, a former member of Likud who was elected to the previous Knesset on Moshe Dayan’s Telem ticket. Hurwitz, who ran in last month’s elections on the one-member ticket, Courage to Cure the Economy, joined the Alignment, Shinui, Citizens Rights Movement (CRM) and Yahad in asking Herzog to name Peres to form the government. Other parties joining in this move were the Progressive List for Peace and the Communists.
The Likud, Tehiya, Shas, Aguda Israel and Morasha asked Herzog to give Shamir the first chance to form a government. The National Religious Party (NRP) and Tami asked merely that a national unity government be formed.
By law, Peres now has 21 days to pursue his efforts to form a government. After that time he must report back to the President. If he has not been successful in forming a government he can ask for another 21 days. In the past, Presidents have generally agreed to the additional time. If Peres, after 42 days, still cannot put together a majority of 61 Knesset members in the 120-member parliament, Herzog will presumably turn to Shamir — although he could conceivably ask another MK to form the government. That candidate is also given two 21-day periods.
STRESSES NEED FOR A QUICK DECISION
Herzog, however, stressed to Peres today, in his public statement nominating the Labor leader, that “the country needs a quick decision.” Three times the President reiterated his firm belief that the nation desperately desired a unity government. He said his consultations with the parties had shown him that “all agree we have deteriorated into what is perhaps our gravest-ever economic crisis … the situation is dangerous … the crunch could come quicker than people think or imagine … then arguments over whether or not to put up settlements will be hypothetical…”
Herzog spoke, too, of the “danger to our democracy” and the need for a “strong, democratic government” to take action to protect democracy in Israel.
These twin dangers, and “countless appeals” to him had prompted him, Herzog said, to launch his initiative last week for a unity government — an initiative which has resulted in Likud-Labor summit talks in Jerusalem.
But, implicitly rejecting Likud’s pressure on him to delay the nomination while these talks proceed, Herzog said he felt the talks would get nowhere unless there was a nomination of a Prime Ministerial designate.
Obliquely touching on another Likud argument — that there was a tie between MKs supporting a Peres-led government and those favoring Shamir — Herzog said that even if this were the case he would choose Peres as leader of the largest faction. This was the established convention in Israel. It had been departed from just once: last September, when Shamir, though not leader of the largest faction, could show he had a coalition of 61 MKs behind him.
HISTORICAL LESSONS OF TISHA B’AV CITED
Herzog pointedly spoke of the historical lesson of Tisha B’av which falls this week. The Jewish State was destroyed 1900-odd years ago, according to rabbinical teachings, because of polarization within its society and “needless hatred” between the various parties. Herzog called on the parties today to overcome their divisions and strive for unity.
Peres, in his reply, also touched on the Tisha B’Av moral, expressing the hope that he could lead modern Israel through this memorial period of the ancient destruction towards unity. He pledged to try and form a unity government but also — deliberately — implied that other possibilities existed for a Labor-led government that would reflect the election results.
Signalling to the religious parties, which are pivotal still in the narrow-based options, Peres said a Labor-led government would “respect the Orthodox citizens” and preserve the “status quo” in religious affairs. But at the same time, he said — in a signal to Shinui and the CRM — Labor would oppose religious coercion.
The Labor leader agreed that the national needs required the speedy formation of a government. The immediate issues to be tackled, Peres said, were the economy, Lebanon, strengthening the IDF, continuing and expanding the peace process. Before leaving the Presidential residence, he called Shamir to propose immediate talks, and also called Yahad’s Ezer Weizman.
ROLE OF YAHAD AND THE NRP
Weizman, who effectively holds the balance between the two big blocs (both would find it almost impossible to form a government without Yahad’s three seats), has been consistent since election night in demanding a unity government.
Another key pivotal party, the NRP, with four seats, has also urged unity — and it did so again this morning at a meeting with Shamir and Likud leaders. The NRP leadership is to meet with Peres tomorrow.
In the Likud there is bitter anger at NRP for failing to line up, with the other religious parties, behind a Shamir Premiership-preference. Likud leaders feel that if NRP had told the President it favors Shamir, giving the Likud leader the support of 58 MKs, then Herzog might well have given the nomination to Likud rather than Labor.
Thus, despite Herzog’s decision, Labor and Likud are both still holding their various options open — both for a unity government under one or other of them or for a narrow-based government led by one or other of them.
Likud sources believe Labor’s efforts at unity will eventually come unglued because of opposition by Mapam, Labor’s partner in the Alignment. Mapam’s opposition has been muted, although veteran Mapam leader Yaacov Hazan spoke out strongly against a unity government with Likud, in a radio interview last week. Today, Mapam leaders wrote Peres urging him to form a narrow-based government as a first stage and seek to expand the base later, Mapam’s position regarding a unity government remains unclear.
If there is dissent from Mapam to form a unity government, Likud would then go back to Herzog and argue that it (Likud) and not Labor is the largest faction desiring unity and therefore Shamir should be nominated to form the government.
ISSUE OF WHO IS A JEW LAW AMENDMENT
Likud sources also believe that Peres’ efforts to set up a narrow based coalition will fail because the religious parties, and ultimately Weizman, will not back him. Regarding the religious parties, Likud sources say that Likud can pledge to support an Orthodox-sponsored amendment to the Who is a Jew law with greater credibility than in the past because such Liberal Party recalcitrants as Yitzhak Berman and Dror Zeigerman are no longer in the Likud-Liberal Knesset list.
Labor sources counter, however, by hinting that as a last resort, Labor will be prepared to allow their MKs to vote their conscience on the Who is a Jew amendment. In that case, political observers believe, the amendment would stand a good chance of getting through the Knesset. The amendment would recognize exclusively Orthodox conversions to Judaism.
Meanwhile, Radio Israel reported tonight that Shamir has agreed to a suggestion by Peres that the two meet alone tomorrow afternoon for what could be a crucial session that will determine the prospects of a unity government. Peres wrote Shamir a letter today pledging that the division of Cabinet portfolios would reflect the Knesset lineup. (Likud sources have argued that if there is to be a Labor Premier, there should be a Likud Foreign Minister and a Likud Defense Minister.)