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Resignation of Shas Party Leader Threatens the Unity Government

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The Labor-Likud government was threatened by its first serious internal crisis today when Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, leader of the Sephardic religious party Shas, submitted his resignation in a bitter dispute over Cabinet portfolios with the National Religious Party.

Deputy Premier and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, head of Likud, cut short his Latin American trip and was reported to be flying home from Venezuela to try to resolve the dispute before Peretz’s resignation takes effect. A Cabinet member’s resignation becomes official 48 hours after it is formally submitted.

PROBLEM OF A DELICATE BALANCE

The problem is not that Shas, a new faction with four Knesset members, could bring down the unity government by going into opposition. It is rather, that the departure of Shas would disturb the delicate balance between the two major components of the coalition, each of which acts as patron to several smaller Knesset factions. Likud is the patron of Shas. Labor has been backing the NRP in the dispute.

Deputy Premier David Levy, a powerful voice in Likud, warned today the secession of Shas inevitably would “harm and endanger” the coalition because it would call into question Likud’s credibility as Shas’ partner and patron. Levy did not threaten a Likud walk-out but some observers saw such threat implicit in his remarks.

EFFORT TO RESOLVE PORTFOLIO DISPUTE

Two coalition ministers, Haim Corfu of Likud and Moshe Shahal of Labor, have been negotiating for weeks to resolve the portfolio dispute. As of last week, Peretz had apparently agreed to accept the Interior Ministry — a traditional fiefdom of the NRP — while the latter, reduced from six to four Knesset mandates in last July’s elections, would take over the Religious Affairs Ministry.

But the NRP insisted, with Labor’s support, that religious functions falling within the purview of the Interior Ministry be transferred to the Religious Affairs Ministry. Peretz, who is said to have agreed to the arrangement, balked over the weekend and was advised by the Shas “Council of Sages” to quit the Cabinet.

Labor maintains that Likud could resolve the matter by naming a Shas member Deputy Minister of Housing, a sub-Cabinet post sought by the party. Levy, who is Housing Minister as well as Deputy Premier, said last week that Likud was prepared to make the appointment. He claimed that the Labor-NRP accord to whittle down the Interior Ministry was responsible for the crisis.

But the appointment of a Shas deputy minister would aggravate the long simmering tension between the Herut and Liberal Party wings of Likud. The Liberals could be expected to demand additional appointments for themselves.

The danger of a broader coalition crisis stems in part from Peretz’s remarks to reporters last week hinting that if his party quits the unity coalition it would be free in the future to join a narrowly-based Labor-led government, something it refused to do during the coalition negotiations that followed the July elections.

Shahal, who is Energy Minister, predicted today that the crisis would be resolved without escalating into a battle between Labor and Likud, even if Shas quits the government.

Corfu, obviously bitter and frustrated over the breakdown of the agreement he and Shahal negotiated between Shas and the NRP, accused Peretz, a Minister-Without-Portfolio of reneging. Peretz, he said, suddenly threw in a demand for the deputy ministership of housing because of pressure from his Shas colleague who is slated to get the post.

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