Special Analysis the Rotation of the Premiership

Two years ago the pundits here and abroad were predicting, almost to a man, that the government of national unity was a non-starter, a lame duck, bound to collapse no sooner than it set out on its 50-month course.

The differences between major parties were considered too big, the instability of the coalition too built-in, to brook any longevity. The capacity for crises was seen as endemic — and any crisis was thought likely to be fatal.

Now, half-way through the term, and with the Prime Ministerial rotation about to be implemented with remarkably little friction, those same pundits — having eaten their earlier words as gracefully as possible — are now predicting with renewed self-confidence that the government will last its full statutory term.

“Its weakness is its strength,” is one of the now-popular theories.

Each sides’ inability to cobble together an alternative, narrow-based coalition is cited as the reason why the myriad crises of the past two years ended in compromise and resolution — and why the inevitable crises of the future will similarly be weathered.

THE REAL LESSON

The real lesson, however, of these past two years might well be not that the pundits were wrong then, nor that they are right now, but that Israeli politics are in an inherently unpredictable phase following the inconclusive results of the 1981 and the 1984 Knesset elections.

“A week,” said former British Premier Harold Wilson, “is a long time in politics.” Two whole years in Israel’s unity coalition, with the two main partners straining to be rid of each other and of their shotgun marriage, are by that criterion a veritable aeon of mystery and unpredictability.

Even if Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir had plighted to each other their solemn troth to stick together come what may –which they patently have not — external circumstances, beyond their control or influence, could evolve in the months ahead to pull them apart.

THE PEACE PROCESS

In the peace process, a significant shift by Jordan would instantly put Labor and Likud into a confrontational posture. Premier Peres, in his valedictory address to the Knesset Tuesday, said that while he had not managed to lead Israel to the negotiating table, the door to the negotiating room had been opened.

He added that Israel and Jordan, through the United States, were discussing the modalities of an international forum that would ultimately facilitate direct negotiations.

What Peres did not say, in so many words, was that so far King Hussein of Jordan had disappointed both him and U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz in his failure to follow through on his rift with the PLO by entering unequivocally into a peace process with Israel.

But Hussein’s equivocation may suddenly end–especially if Peres is able to continue building for the hesitant Hashemite monarch a supportive bastion of moderate Arab opinion.

In this context, Peres’ recent visits to Morocco and to Egypt, and the warm public endorsements he elicited from both King Hassan and President Hosni Mubarak, may be encouraging harbingers of an Arab consensus.

Peres, moreover, has made it abundantly clear that he will not permit himself to be stymied by Premier Shamir in his pursuit of these diplomatic overtures, which he launched late in his own terms as Premier.

IDEA OF AN INTERNATIONAL FORUM

Similarly, if the idea of an international forum or conference takes on more concrete and practical form — at the moment it is still the subject of controversy or suspicion in many world chanceries — this could quickly end the Labor-Likud policy-cease-fire which is at the basis of this unity government.

For after all, the government has maintained its existence until now because the two major partners have not been required to address the essentials of the Palestinian issue — the issue on which they are irretrievably divided.

Preparations for an international conference would inevitably bring those differences to the fore, in the form of the question of Palestinian representation.

Peres, at his summit meeting with Mubarak in Alexandria, declared that the Palestinians were a people like any other people. He has said repeatedly that he would accept “authentic Palestinian representatives” as negotiating partners.

This is not a position which the Likud could support if it were removed from the realm of rhetoric and placed squarely in the center of an international diplomatic confabulation.

Shamir has been at pains to pour cold water on the notion of an international conference–and seems to have won over at least some in the Reagan Administration to this viewpoint. These American policymakers are less exercised by the Palestinian aspect than by the prospect of the Soviets returning to center-stage in Middle East diplomacy.

THE DOMESTIC FRONT

On the domestic front, relations between Labor and Likud could quickly deteriorate to breaking point if Labor begins to feel that the Likud, holding both the Premiership and the key Ministry of Finance, is loosening the reins of austerity and handing out pre-election largess, as it did in 1983-4.

Peres has made it clear — he did so with diplomatic understatement in his Knesset speech Tuesday — that he and his party take most of the credit for restoring the country to economic stability after inheriting the roller-coaster hyperinflation of the Likud years.

In the pre-rotation wrangling, Labor has sought — with scant success, it seems — some modicum of power in the economic sphere. The Likud has been understandably reluctant to cede any. Finance Minister Moshe Nissim (Likud-Liberal) has pledged full cooperation and argued that this need not be formalized.

Nissim, unlike his predecessor, Yitzhak Modai, has built for himself a calm, solid, dependable image. Peres himself admits privately that Nissim has been a pleasant surprise and that the Treasury, therefore, is in good hands.

Still, Labor finds it hard to face the future denied any real say in economic policy-making. This frustration may grow ominously as the Shamir Premiership wears on and the next elections loom closer.

In the administered territories, the right flank of the Likud and the parties to the farther right are openly anticipating a new wave of Jewish settlements. And the Labor Defense Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, is stating plainly that there is no money for it — nor does the carefully crafted unity government policy-platform require it.

Shamir, always canny and patient, has let his ideologues have their say. But he has made it clear that he is aware of the constrictions and limitations imposed on him both by economic exigencies and by the nature of unity government politics.

As long as Shamir can hold off the incessant challenge (to himself) from Ariel Sharon, his pragmatism should ensure that, on this issue at least, the unity government can continue to hold together.

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