JERUSALEM (Dec. 1)
Likud and Labor appear to have checkmated each other in a political chess game to see which party will head the next government.
Each now seems to have enough votes in the Knesset to prevent the other from forming a governing coalition.
And each is depending on the support of ultra-Orthodox parties, which have shown themselves in recent days to be notoriously fickle.
According to the latest arithmetic, Likud and its religious and right-wing partners command 60 votes in the 120-member chamber. The other 60 represent Labor and an unlikely bloc of religious and extreme left-wing parties.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the Likud leader, is trying desperately to work his way out of the stalemate. The 21-day mandate he got from President Chaim Herzog last month to form a new government expires Monday.
He can request a 21-day extension. But he seems further from accomplishing his task now than he was three weeks ago.
The political scene was thrown into turmoil when the Labor Party’s leadership bureau unexpectedly rejected an offer to join Likud in a broad coalition government.
The 61-57 vote Wednesday was a slap at party leader Shimon Peres and other Labor ministers, who had been urging a renewed alliance with Likud.
AGUDAH SIGNS WITH LABOR
A variety of new scenarios swiftly emerged.
The ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party signed an agreement with Labor Thursday, where by neither party would join a coalition without the other.
Within hours, Shamir sent Herut powerhouse Ariel Sharon to a Jerusalem hotel room to meet with Agudah leaders, in an effort to cajole or shame them out of their deal with Labor.
He reportedly taunted the bearded, blackgarbed Agudah Knesset members for entering a bloc with Arab and Communist parties.
Sharon also is said to have told them, “Only we (Likud) can give you ‘Who Is a Jew,’ ” the amendment to the Law of Return that would disqualify non-Orthodox converts from citizenship.
The measure was the religious parties’ price for joining a Likud-led coalition. But the fierce opposition it aroused among Diaspora Jewry has put its adoption by the Knesset in doubt.
At least some Agudah members now feel their chances are better with Labor than with Likud.
The accord they signed with Labor promises that the party’s 1,000 member Central Committee will decide within three months whether to instruct its Knesset faction to back the controversial measure.
Labor is also said to have promised Agudah two ministerial posts and chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee if it joins a Labor-led coalition.
Meanwhile, the smallest of the religious parties, Degel HaTorah, is reported to have done its second “flip-flop” this week.
It announced earlier in the week that it would not join a Likud-religious-rightist coalition because a broad-based Likud-Labor government was better for the country.
On Thursday, it seemed to be leaning again toward Likud. Shamir, in fact, may have to depent on its two Knesset votes to prevent Labor from forming a government.