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Behind the Headlines: Tzomet Leader Shaping Up to Be Potent Force on Israel’s Far Right

Rafael Eitan, former Israel Defense Force chief of staff, is shaping up as a potent political force on the far right, and observers here do not rule out the possibility that he could be the next defense minister.

Eitan presently heads the Tzomet party and is its sole representative in the Knesset. He recently emerged from an internal party conflict with his reputation enhanced.

A career soldier until his retirement in 1982, Eitan joined the ultranationalist Tehiya party. But he broke with Tehiya last year in a stormy confrontation with its firebrand Knesset member, Geula Cohen.

Their falling-out reportedly was over the No. 2 spot on Tehiya’s 1988 election list, which is headed by the party’s nominal leader, Tel Aviv University physics Professor Yuval Ne’eman.

Many political observers predicted Eitan would quickly fade and fail on his own. Instead, he helped found Tzomet and was overwhelmingly elected its leader. According to recent polls, the party will make a respectable showing in the Knesset elections in November.

Eitan himself is projecting an image of forceful integrity. Having received a report of irregularities in the original Tzomet elections, he demanded that the entire slate stand for new elections, including himself.

Although his leadership position is hardly threatened, he has risked defections by some of Tzomet’s younger members. But the demonstration of puritan values on the part of this hard-bitten, plain-spoken soldier has added to his popularity.

A STRONGER RIGHT WING

In part, his improved political situation is due to the general strengthening of Israel’s right wing since the Palestinian uprising began more than five months ago. Eitan has never concealed his hard-line views.

He advocates the wholesale deportation of Palestinian “agitators” and of the fathers of young stone-throwers, as a punitive and deterrent measure. There are many in Israel today who appreciate such ideas.

According to some political observers, Eitan’s star may rise if Likud wins the November elections and reinstates Yitzhak Shamir as prime minister. Shamir may be loath to name his Herut critic and political rival Ariel Sharon to the office of defense minister.

While presumably he would choose his close political ally Moshe Arens for the job, that may prove unfeasible in terms of Likud’s internal polities. Under such circumstances, Shamir might find Eitan an attractive alternative.

Eitan’s long military career was badly tarnished by the report of the Kahan Commission in 1982. The commission, headed by the Supreme Court president, Justice Yitzhak Kahan, conducted an inquiry into the role of the Israel Defense Force in the Shatila and Sabra refugee camps massacre in West Beirut.

The massacre was the work of Lebanese Christian Phalangists allied with Israel. The commission made no recommendations with respect to Eitan, noting that he was on the point of retiring. The implication was that had his retirement not been imminent, the commission might have urged his removal as chief of staff.

But the Likud and Shamir have never been enthusiastic over the Kahan report. In the event of a Likud election victory and the fact that the massacre is six years in the past, Shamir may feel he can ignore it and elevate Eitan to a post he might well have attained had fate not intervened.

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