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Labor-likud Talks Take a Step Forward: Both Parties Move Towards Establishing Joint Working Groups

The week-long negotiations between Labor Alignment and Likud leaders on forming a new government took a step forward today. Both parties were scheduled to announce tonight the establishment of joint working groups, each on a specific topic, to try and hammer out agreed formulas as the policy planks of a unity government.

The announcement was expected after a meeting tonight — the fourth — between teams led by Premier Yitzhak Shamir and Labor Party leader Shimon Peres at the King David Hotel here. It was foreshodowed earlier today by Transport Minister Haim Corfu (Likud-Herut) when he told reporters that Likud would agree to working groups as a way of making concrete progress in the unity effort. His statement followed a consultation of Likud ministers at the Prime Minister’s office.

Labor spokesmen had cited agreement on the creation of working groups as an acid test of whether Likud was serious about the unity effort, or whether it was merely playing for time until Peres’ mandate expires. President Chaim Herzog chose Peres last Sunday to form a new government.

The Labor leader had 21 days from that time to do so, with an option of a 21-day extension if he needed it to complete his task. Should he fail to do so by then, Herzog will call on someone else to try to form a government. Shamir would in all likelihood be called upon to do so, as the leader of the second largest party in the Knesset, with 41 seats compared to Labor’s 44.

A STUMBLING BLOCK REMAINS

But a stumbling block to smoothe negotiations continued to dog the efforts today. Likud refuses to accede to Labor’s demand that the issue of the Premiership itself is not negotiable by Herzog’s choice of Peres as Premier-designate.

Likud ministers last week resolved unanimously to insist that the Premiership be a negotiating issue between the two parties, and one of the most senior among them told the Jewish Telegrophic Agency today Likud still hoped and intended to maneuver so that the Premiership is eventually retained by Shamir.

Likud’s hopes are based on the assessment that Peres cannot form a narrow-based Labor-led government — given the National Religious Party’s and Yahad’s still adamant refusal to join one. The NRP has four Knesset seats and Yahad has three.

Likud leaders believe that in the final analysis, Shamir’s prospects of putting together a narrow-based coalition led by Likud are better than those of Labor. The logic is that the NRP and Yahad, although initially favoring a unity government, would ultimately support a narrow-based Likud-led government.

But the senior Likud minister cited this hypothetical advantage as a reason why Likud should keep the Premiership of a unity government, not as a reason to actually go ahead and form a narrow-based government. The minister acknowledged frankly that such a narrow-based government would inevitably be short-lived and would be unable to tackle the economic problems facing the country.

“These are solvable,” the minister said. “But their solution is political as much as economic … They need a strong government.”

The ministers felt that Labor itself shared the assessment that a Labor-led narrow government was unattainable and Likud-led one was also either unattainable or undesirable (or both) and thus, the senior minister added, both major blocs were sincere in their bid for unity.

COOPERATION TO ENABLE THE KNESSET TO FUNCTION

While the talks on the future shape of the government go ahead, the two major parties are cooperating in temporary arrangements enabling the 11th Knesset to function. The parliament will convene for its formal, festive opening session tomorrow afternoon, and Labor, at any rate, is anxious for further business sessions to take place in the days ahead — even though the political picture is still confused. (There have been suggestions that the Knesset recess after the formal opening session.)

Likud and Labor agreed at the end of last week on the composition, for the time being, of the two key committee: finance and foreign affairs and defense. The finance committee will have an equal number of Likud and Labor Alignment members — plus one extra member of the present coalition, giving the transition government an effective majority. Likud Knesset floor managers were expected to decide today that Agudat Israel’s Avraham Shapiro be chairman of the committee. In the 10th Knesset, Aguda’s Shlomo Lorincz was the finance committee chairman.

Likud and Labor also agreed last week that in the foreign affairs and defense committee, Labor should have a majority of one — in recognition of Labor’s larger number of Knesset seats. The Labor Knesset caucus voted today to have Haim Barlev, the party’s secretary-general, serve as chairman of the committee. Barlev is a former Chief of Staff and a former Minister of Commerce.

NO AGREEMENT ON KNESSET SPEAKER

There has been no agreement, however, on the post of Knesset Speaker. Likud was toying with the idea of offering this to Prof. Avner Sciaki of the NRP, a new MK, but objections were voiced from within the Likud. Labor favors its own veteran MK Shlomo Hillel for the post, but cannot be sure of a majority for him.

At the opening session of the Knesset tomorrow, as prescribed by law, the oldest MK — Yosef Burg of the NRP — will wield the Speaker’s gavel after brief opening remarks by Herzog. Likud and the NRP presume that Burg will continue in that role in subsequent sessions, until a Speaker is elected.

But at the Labor caucus today, objections were voiced by David Libai, a new MK, to Burg, as a minister in the transitional government serving as Speaker — even temporarily — of the legislative arm. (Burg cannot resign as Minister of the Interior since there can be no resignation from a transitional government.) Libai and Labor MK Haim Ramon suggested, therefore, the second eldest MK, Abba Eban.

Hadash (Communist) leader Meir Wilner has proposed his party colleague, Tawfik Toubi, an Arab MK serving the parliament since the 1950’s, as Speaker — in demon stration of the Knesset’s opposition to the racism espoused by Kach Party leader Rabbi Meir Kahane who won a seat in the Knesset. But there has been no support for Toubi outside of the Hadash ranks.

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