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A Night of Frenetic Deals

“Split it between you,” a bleary-eyed cameraman told Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Navon and Haim Barlev at four a.m. this morning as he plonked down in front of them a can of Coca-Cola.

The three Labor leaders, gratefully and without overmuch attention to protocolar requirements, eagerly swilled back the beverage, lubricating their parched throats and keeping them conscious for yet another gruelling hour of pre-dawn negotiations.

The cameraman’s mate offered them a hunk of bagel, still warm from an Old City baker’s van. Greedily they gobbled it up.

After all, the Knesset restaurants had all closed long hours ago. But they and their aides were still buried in the bowels of the house, beavering away towards the so-elusive goal: wrapping up the coalition accord.

On the floor above, unattended by media people, Yitzhak Shamir and his aides were no doubt in similarly hungry and thirsty condition — and similarly teetering on the verge of physical exhaustion.

WHEELING AND DEALING TO THE VERY END

The wheeling and dealing and horse-trading was at last coming to an end: the final, unchangeable deadline had been set — Thursday afternoon. Labor had given notice, with the National Religious Party support, that if it could not announce a unity government by then — it would present to the Knesset a narrow-based one and squeak home with the votes of the Communists.

Peres and his aides were awaiting Shamir’s visit to them, from the fourth floor to the fifth, in order to hand him a copy of the formal letter Peres proposed sending President Chaim Herzog informing the President that a government had been formed. Once Shamir took formal note of that letter — it would be all over.

“Where is he?”Peres asked, too tired, and too schooled in delays and disappointments to be impatient. “He’s still stuck with the Shas guys, ” someone answered. “They’ve gone to say selichot” (predawn prayers), someone else volunteered.

And indeed, the Shas rabbi-politicians had taken over a committee room and were offering penitence prayers in between drafting sessions with their Likud patrons over complex compromise formulae in the matter of the Religious Affairs portfolio

THREAT BY THE NRP

Earlier in the evening, the NRP Executive met in the Knesset and decided to accept a Labor proposal whereby both Religions and Interior — NRP’s two “traditional “portfolios — be ” deposited ” with the Premier for the time being, “until a solution is worked out. “

If Likud and Shas rejected that, the NRP warned there would be a Labor-led narrow government — with NRP participation — the next day.

Faced with that kind of threat, Shamir had little choice but to climb down. He met with Peres — and the two of them called in Shas’ Yitzhak Peretz (by now it was well past one a.m.) to cajole him into swallowing the medicine, too.

The Shas politicians were mortified. “We are being made fools of,”they railed. The two ministries were run by NRP-affiliated directors-general, and, deposited with Peres, they would continue in effect, therefore, to be controlled by the NRP.

But Shamir was adamant. Likud and Labor were going ahead, he made it clear, with or without Shas. “He’s (Shamir) not the whole of the Likud, ” a Shas MK noted forcefully to reporters — a clear reference to Shas’ particular patron, Ariel Sharon.

And indeed, this morning, in a last-minute turnabout engineered by Sharon, Shas decided to join the government after all and accept the “deposit” scheme. Peretz told reporters Sharon had specifically undertaken that Shas would eventually receive one or other of the two disputed ministries.

Be that as it may, the unity Cabinet has 25 members — Shas’ entry was followed by that of Morasha — an unwieldly number even in an optimal situation of political homogeneity which this certainly is not.

Peres and Shamir are aware of the problem, however, and have built into their agreement a scheme that could, if it works, be a solution.

It calls for an inner Cabinet of 10 members — five Labor and five Likud — where key issues will be brought for decision. These decisions will “bind Labor and Likud” — thus ensuring their endorsement in the Cabinet plenary.

But observers believe that even the 10-member forum, which will also serve as the Ministerial Defense Committee, may prove unwieldly. They expect, therefore — if the unity government indeed takes hold — the informal evolution of a still smaller forum, comprising Peres and Shamir and just a very few others, reminiscent of Golda Meir’s “Kitchen Cabinet.”

Presumably, Sharon would not be part of such a body. The question is, however, whether he would be prepared to countenance its existence without his participation in it — and whether Shamir is strong enough to resist Sharon’s efforts to undermine it.

No doubt, as the unity government is launched on its way, the problem of Sharon’s open challenge to Shamir is one of the most salient shadows threatening its longevity and efficiency. Sharon’s challenge to Shamir was dramatically in evidence Tuesday night when he opposed Shamir’s recommended slate of Herut ministers in the unity government during a stormy meeting of the Herut Central Committee. The slate was approved nevertheless.

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