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The Lavi Fighter Plane Project Remains a Contentious Political Issue

The Lavi fighter plane project died before reaching the assembly line, the result of a government decision five weeks ago. But it remains very much alive as a political issue in the increasingly bitter conflict between the unity coalition partners, Labor and Likud.

The Cabinet vote on August 30 to shelve Israel’s prestigious second generation combat aircraft because of excessive costs was split along party lines. Labor favored cancellation of the project. Likud was determined to preserve it. The outcome was the result of a defection by Likud Finance Minister Moshe Nissim who voted with Labor.

Now Likud politicians, notably Minister of Commerce and Industry Ariel Sharon, are claiming that so crucial a decision must not be allowed to hang on a single vote. “In my view, the Lavi is not yet dead,” Sharon told cheering workers at Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) at a rally Monday. It was music to their ears.

Some 3,000 IAI employes are expected to be dismissed as a result of the Lavi cancellation. Temporary workers will be laid off immediately after the Succot holiday. Afterwards, IAI will terminate some 300-400 employes a month.

SHARON TALKS TOUGH

Sharon and Yitzhak Modai, a Likud Liberal Minister-Without-Portfolio, were the only Cabinet members at the rally. Modai, a former Finance Minister, warned the workers not to raise their hopes that the Lavi can be revived. But Sharon’s tough talk inspired the crowd to chant “Yes and no, yes and no — Peres is the son of a bitch,” a reference to Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the Labor Party leader.

Also attacked was Laborite Minister Ezer Weizman, a former Air Force commander who was one of the most outspoken opponents of the Lavi. Sharon, for his part was treated to shouts of “Sharon to Defense,” a call for his return to the office of Defense Minister which he held in the Likud-led government of Premier Menachem Begin.

All of this did not sit well with the incumbent Defense Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee Monday that he Knew of no precedent where a Minister publicly attacked the decision of a Cabinet of which he is a member.

“Those poor workers are being fed all kinds of nonsense,” Rabin said with respect to Sharon’s remarks at the IAI rally. He said he could not begin to work on alternatives to the Lavi until “all matters are resolved,” meaning an end to attempts to revive the ill-fated project. Moshe Arens, a Likud-Herut Minister-Without-Portfolio who resigned from the government in protest against the Lavi decision, is making such efforts. Maariv reported Sunday that he told an associate before he left for the U.S. last week that he would try to get the McDonnell Douglas Co., a leading American manufacturer of combat aircraft, to join IAI in the Lavi project.

WIDE SUPPORT FOR GOVERNMENT DECISION

IAI workers are hopeful that Arens, Sharon or someone will turn the tide. They are understandably anti-Labor. But their views apparently do not reflect those of the broader population. A poll conducted by the Pori organization, published in Davar Friday found that the Israeli public, by a 20 percent margin, supports the government’s decision to scrap the project.

Of the 1,150 adults questioned between September 14-21, 54 percent believed the government’s decision was “certainly correct” compared to 34 percent who thought “it was wrong” or “certainly wrong.” The decision also raised public esteem for the unity government’s ability to make hard decisions on important issues.

Meanwhile, the Government Employment Service is lining up new jobs for displaced Lavi workers. It has announced some 350 openings for engineers and 600 for technicians.

Nevertheless, David Mena, a senior official of the Employment Service, said Tuesday that he anticipated “grave difficulties” in absorbing 500 aeronautical engineers. He warned that many engineers dismissed by IAI and its subcontractors may head for the U.S. and Canada where there is a large demand for their experience and skills.

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