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Alternatives to Likud Government Emerge on Eve of Consultations

The probability of a Likud-led government, in partnership with the ultra-Orthodox and extreme right-wing parties, seemed uncertain over the weekend, as President Chaim Herzog prepared for consultations Monday with political leaders aimed at forming a governing coalition.

In fact, what had appeared crystal clear after the unexpectedly strong showing by the religious parties in the Nov. 1 knesset elections has become increasingly murky.

There has been serious talk in the past two days of a Labor-led coalition with the religious bloc, or parts of it.

And there are some in both the Likud and Labor camps who seem ready to endure a new national unity coalition, despite the ideological and political conflicts that paralyzed the outgoing one.

Herzog is required by law to assign the task of forming a new government to the political leader he considers most likely to succeed.

This does not necessarily mean the leader of the largest faction. Likud edged out Labor by the barest margin — 40 to 39 knesset seats.

The four religious parties won 18 seats among them, becoming the third largest political force in the parliament and potential “kingmakers.”

Given their restrictive social agenda and hard-line policies, they were considered natural partners of the rightist, conservative Likud bloc. But public statements by some Orthodox leaders Sunday indicated they would be equally amenable to a deal with Labor.

Rabbi Eliezer Schach, the venerable sage who influences both the Shas and Degel Ha Torah parties, issued a directive to representatives of both to hold talks with Labor Party leader Shimon Peres. The two parties together account for eight Knesset seats.

ULTRA-ORTHODOX RIVALRY

The immediate reaction of the Laborites was wariness. They understand the religious parties are likely to play them against Likud to win their maximum demands.

Another twist to the coalition talks is the bitter rivalry in the ultra-Orthodox camp.

Leaders of the Agudat Yisrael party spent most of Sunday weighing their options before they met with Likud representatives.

Reportedly, they reached only one decision — that they would shun any coalition of which the rival Shas and Degel HaTorah parties were members.

This means the Agudah might give its five Knesset seats to a Labor-led coalition if its rivals aligned with Likud, or vice versa.

According to an unconfirmed report, veteran Agudah Knesset member Menahem Porush already has urged the party to join only a Labor-led coalition.

Degel HaTorah’s leader, Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, said that despite his pro-Likud sympathies, the party has not and should not commit itself to either of the major blocs.

He estimated at 50-50 its chances of aligning with either Likud or Labor.

CALLS FOR UNITY GOVERNMENT

As Likud realized it was not certain Herzog would summon Premier Yitzhak Shamir to form the next government, calls were heard within the party for renewal of the national unity government.

Speculation had it that Shamir would feel comfortable negotiating with Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, now Labor’s No. 2 man, if Peres were to be eliminated as Labor Party leader.

There is personal as well as political antipathy between Shamir and Peres. There is also a movement in some Labor circles to oust Peres because of the party’s poor showing.

So, the two ideological foes seem to be sending out feelers toward each other.

Shamir is said to prefer keeping Rabin on as defense minister to appointing either of his own party’s candidates, Moshe Arens or Ariel Sharon, both former defense ministers.

Sharon and Rabin were embroiled in a verbal battle during the Cabinet’s weekly session Sunday.

Sharon accused Rabin of suppressing films taken shortly after a bus was firebombed outside Jericho on Oct. 30. A woman and her three small children were killed in the blast.

Rabin stood firm, saying he wanted to avoid provocation. The flare-up took a personal turn when Rabin reminded Sharon that he was the only defense minister forced to resign on the recommendation of a government commission that investigated the conduct of the Lebanon war in 1982.

Sharon retorted that Rabin was unqualified for his office because of his failure after a year to suppress the Palestinian uprising.

To which Rabin replied, “Your comments do not touch the tip of my ankle,” a euphemism for another portion of his anatomy.

Meanwhile, the two leftist parties without which no Labor-led coalition would survive, kept mum over the weekend.

The Citizens Rights Movement and Mapam, with a combined total of eight Knesset seats, indicated they would not object to Labor negotiating with the religious parties if a government could be formed without Likud.

On the other hand, they were advising Labor to avoid any “humiliating” negotiations with the religious parties. The Citizens Rights Movement has been a leading opponent of “religious coercion” imposed by the Orthodox parties.

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