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Behind the Headlines Labor, Likud Marriage is Showing Signs of Strain

The honeymoon may be over between Labor and Likud. Strains are beginning to show between the ideologically opposed partners who put together a national unity government little more than two months ago as the only way to tackle Israel’s worst economic crisis and to extricate the Israel Defense Force from the morass of Lebanon.

Many observers had predicted that this marriage of convenience, a consequence of the indecisive results of the July 23 Knesset elections, would be short-lived. This week relations between the partners reached a new low.

Deputy Premier and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir told a meeting of the Herut executive committee yesterday that “When we formed the national unity government, we knew who our partners were and up to now we have not been favorably surprised.”

Minister of Trade and Industry Ariel Sharon, the hard-line former Defense Minister who took a dim view of the unity coalition from the start, let loose a blast at Premier Shimon Peres from New York where Sharon is pursuing his $50 million libel suit against Time magazine. He accused the Labor Party leader of having done “much harm to Israel’s image” by describing the economy to be “in worse shape than it really is.”

FREEZE AND ACHIEVEMENT

The most important — and possibly the only significant achievement of the unity government to date — has been a wage-price-tax freeze package of three month’s duration which, it is hoped, will curb the highest inflation rate in Israel’s history. Last week, Minister of Science and Development Gideon Patt, a key Likud Cabinet member, predicted that the freeze would end in an “economic catastrophe.”

Peres, who has been trying to avoid confrontation, responded sharply this time. He noted that the “economic catastrophe” was what the unity government inherited from its Likud predecessor.

But Shamir, the Likud leader who will replace Peres as Prime Minister at the half-way mark of the unity government’s four year term — should it survive that long — is clearly unhappy with his Laborite partners. He told a group of Herut activists recently that Likud was staying in the unity government but “grinding its teeth.”

SHAMIR BELIEVES LABOR IS SOFT

Shamir apparently believes Labor is too soft on the political front in dealing with Israel’s neighbors. He accused Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin of being too anxious to pull out of Lebanon and giving little importance to “formalities.” He objected to Peres’ publicly stated desire to improve the living standards of Arabs on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He is rankled by Peres’ repeated declarations of the need to open a dialogue with Jordan and recent attempts to thaw relations with Egypt.

Shamir, as a member of former Premier Menachem Begin’s government, opposed the Camp David agreements and the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. He is now critical of the government’s attempts to reopen negotiations with Egypt over the Taba border dispute. Cairo, afterall, has not returned its Ambassador to Tel Aviv since he was recalled in 1982 during the Lebanon war.

Shamir is especially incensed by a proposal by former Foreign Minister Abba Eban, now chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, to deploy United Nations forces in Taba until the border dispute is settled. Such an act, Shamir indicated, would bring an end to the unity government. He has also reportedly blocked efforts by Minister Ezer Weizman to open his own channels to the Egyptians in an effort to end the “cold peace.”

ECONOMY CAUSES FRICTION WITHIN LIKUD

The economy at present is the overriding problem and it is causing friction within Likud. Deputy Premier David Levy of the party’s Herut branch has publicly criticized the policies of Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai, a Likud Liberal, which have the backing of Peres. Levy claims Modai is worsening the condition of wage-earners. Critics of Levy say he is trying to curry favor with workers to improve Likud’s chances in the upcoming Histadrut elections. Levy denies this. He contends that the drastic cuts in government subsidies for basic consumer products and services make no economic sense.

Modai insists that the budget, slashed by $1 billion, must be reduced by another half billion dollars if the freeze package is to have any effect.

The dispute over economic policy between key Likud ministers could lead to the dissolution of the Herut-Liberal alignment which would spell the end of Likud — a development that Labor would joyfully welcome. Some observers say that is why Peres has given his unqualified support to Modai, sometimes at the expense of his longtime Labor colleague Gad Yaacobi who is Minister of Economic Planning.

That is also why Peres has been restrained in his reactions to Likud critics. He does not want to give Likud cause to close ranks. He is also well aware, observers say, that given the present economic situation, Labor is better off with Likud as a partner than as a rival.

Peres and Shamir agreed to form a unity government despite its cumbersome size and despite their ideological differences because both men realized it was their only hope to survive politically. During the early days of the union there was much talk of the personal “chemistry” between the two leaders. It may still exist, on a personal level. But Shamir must preserve his leadership of Likud against potential threats from such ambitious politicians as Levy, Sharon and even former Defense Minister Moshe Arens. Peres, for his part, wants to keep open the option of retaining the Premier’s office in a future Labor-led government without Likud.

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