JERUSALEM (Nov. 14)
President Chaim Herzog formally called on Premier Yitzhak Shamir Monday to form a new government.
At the same time, he made clear to the Likud leader his preference for a broadly based regime that would unite the country and avert the alienation of overseas Jewry.
Shamir seems most likely instead to form a narrow coalition led by Likud, with the support of the ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties.
He got the nod from Herzog, a full two weeks after Election Day, only after the two largest religious parties, Shas and Agudat Yisrael, decided late Sunday to align with Likud rather than Labor.
Their combined 11 Knesset seats will allow Shamir to form a working majority in the Knesset. The two other religious parties are expected to fall in line.
Herzog, whose office as chief of state is non-political and non-partisan, made his preferences known by stressing to Shamir the mounting public pressure for a unity government.
He noted widespread concern among Israelis and Jews abroad over the future Zionist nature of the state and the fragility of Jewish unity. And he offered a withering criticism of Israel’s present election system, which endows minority parties with disproportionate political power.
‘WILL TRY’ FOR UNITY COALITION
Shamir was equally careful in crafting his response to the president. He said he would approach “all parties who agree to serve in a Likud-led government” to join him “according to such terms as we all agree to.”
The premier said he was “always a devotee of wide government — what was called four years ago a unity government,” a reference to the Likud-Labor partnership established in 1984.
This remains the correct formula today, Shamir said, “and we will try to persuade all the parties involved so that we can set one up this time, too.”
A new Labor-Likud coalition, however, seems hardly likely at the moment. Labor Party Secretary-General Uzi Baram is less than enthusiastic over the idea. He acknowledged that certain broad circles in Labor seem amenable, provided Likud approaches them on the basis of parity.
Baram conceded, however, that Labor is in no position to demand a rotation of the office of prime minister, such as occurred in the outgoing unity government.
Labor won three more Knesset seats than Likud in 1984. The reverse occurred in the 1988 elections, with Likud winning 40 to Labor’s 39.
Shamir told Herzog he was “aware of the concern and fears, especially among U.S. Jewry” concerning “legislation which is part of the present discussions.”
This was a reference to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox parties that the next government guarantee swift passage of an amendment to the Law of Return that would redefine who is considered a Jew in Israel.
The amendment would not grant automatic citizenship to those converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbis. The change is fiercely opposed by Conservative and Reform Jews, who constitute the vast majority of affiliated Jews in the United States and other Diaspora countries.
‘PREVENT DIVISION AND DISCORD’
Shamir said the outgoing government had sought a solution to this issue “that would prevent division and discord . . . and we will continue to pursue this search.”
He called on all sides “to show goodwill” and work together on “solutions that will facilitate the unity of the Jewish people.”
But according to all reports, Shamir already has promised the religious parties that the “Who Is a Jew” amendment will be passed within weeks of the new government taking office.
Herzog called Israel’s present electoral system an anomaly not attuned to the final years of the 20th century.
He called for “a searching re-examination” of the relevant laws. But he stopped short of urging a change from proportional representation to constituency elections. Nor did he call on Labor and Likud to form a unity government for the sole purpose of enacting electoral reforms.
Herzog did emphasize in his private talk with Shamir, and with a Likud delegation that visited him earlier, the continuing flood of letters and calls to his office from members of the public urging “a profound desire for unity in the face of dangers from without and from within, dangers to Jewish unity and to the Zionist nature of the state.”
The president also criticized expressions of anti-Orthodox sentiment and called for tolerance.
Shamir promised to carry out his task as expeditiously as possible. The law gives him 21 days to form a government, and he may ask for another 21 days if necessary. He pledged that the new government would make “an enormous effort to advance peace with our neighbors.”