JERUSALEM (Dec. 5)
President Chaim Herzog, in a move unprecedented for an Israeli chief of state, called unequivocally Monday for a broadly based Likud-Labor unity government.
Declaring that only a broad government could offer the country “the stability it needs,” Herzog said he was acting on his conscience to try to advance the will of the majority.
The president made his views known to the news media shortly after he gave Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir an additional 21 days to try to form a government.
But to show he “meant business” when he called for a broad regime, Herzog arranged a meeting Tuesday with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the Labor Party leader.
These developments caused new uncertainty, more than a month after the Nov. 1 Knesset elections, over when and what kind of government Israel will have.
The original 21 days Shamir got from Herzog to form a government expired Monday. Shamir asked for an extension so that Likud could solidify a narrow governing coalition with the Orthodox and right-wing parties.
The opportunity arose Sunday night when the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party renounced a previous agreement with the Labor Party and decided to cast its lot with Likud.
Until Monday evening, therefore, it seemed likely that Shamir would put together a 65-scat governing majority in the 120-member Knesset, in partnership with religious and political extremists.
Herzog’s unexpected intervention has put that scenario in doubt.
‘THE SITUATION IS UNUSUAL’
The presidency of Israel is a highly prestigious office that lacks real political power. Presidents have rarely intervened in partisan polities, and when they have expressed political opinions, they have done so in private.
Herzog made the point to the news media Monday night that it was not “common practice” for the president to express himself in this manner. But “the situation is unusual,” he declared.
The problem is moral rather than political, Herzog said. “My conscience forces me, at this hour, to express my views.” He said he was offering his help to try to satisfy “the will of the majority of the people.”
Shamir made it clear that he was proceeding with his efforts to establish a narrow government. He added, however, that he has not given up hope for a broader base.
According to observers, Shamir plans to create his rightist-religious coalition and present it to Labor as a fait accompli, with an offer to join.
But an influential Labor minister ruled out joining a Likud-led government. Economic Coordination Minister Gad Yaacobi said that if Labor formed an alliance with Likud, it would have to be before, not after, a new government is formed.
Housing Minister David Levy of Likud, who advocates a coalition with Labor, said Monday he hoped it was still possible.
Meanwhile, a long-simmering feud exploded Monday in the top ranks of the Labor Party that could eventually topple its present leadership.
Labor has sustained a series of blows in recent days that have thrown it into disarray. On Nov. 30, the party’s leadership bureau voted by secret ballot to reject a deal for a broad coalition government with Likud.
The vote was a stunning upset because the Laborite ministers, with one exception, had been urging acceptance of Shamir’s terms.
That was followed Sunday by what amounted to a slap in the face by Agudat Yisrael, after an ardent courtship by Labor.
The dam burst Monday and the decades-long bitterness between Peres and Labor’s No. 2 man, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, poured out in a flood of recrimination and personal insults.
Rabin made a series of public statements accusing Peres and his aides of torpedoing the chances of a new Labor-Likud unity government.
RABIN AND PERES TRADE CHARGES
Peres and his lieutenants countercharged that Rabin had killed the hope of a narrow-based government led by Labor.
The exchanges became strident Monday with ominous implications for the party’s future.
Rabin, appearing on Israel Radio, attacked Yossi Beilin, recent political director general of the Foreign Ministry and Peres’ closest confidant.
He accused Beilin of conducting unauthorized negotiations with the Agudah and called him “Peres’ poodle,” a reverse anthropomorphism quickly picked up by the news media.
Beilin, interviewed later, declined to answer in kind. But he accused Rabin of setting terms for joining a Likud government without the party’s authorization.
The United Kibbutz Movement, an important Labor affiliate close to Rabin, demanded Monday that the party’s policy-making forums be convened to reconsider its rejection of Likud’s terms.
Rabin himself insisted that an alliance with Likud is still possible.
Although the most recent turn of events make a unity government highly unlikely in the opinion of political observers, Shamir has thorny problems within his own party.
SHAMIR FACING INTERNAL PRESSURES
Herut hard-liner Ariel Sharon has made clear he wants back his old portfolio as defense minister in a Likud-led government. He was forced to give up the post after the scandal surrounding the 1982 massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, near Beirut.
Housing Minister Levy, a deputy premier in the outgoing government, reportedly is demanding the portfolio of foreign minister in the next government, or a similarly senior post.
If Shamir fails to meet the demands of Sharon, Levy and other senior party officials, he could face an internal revolt in Likud.
Many pundits have said in recent weeks that Shamir would have preferred to retain Rabin as defense minister. That would be possible in a Likud-Labor alliance, which may be the reason why Rabin has worked hard to bring one about.
In a late-night statement, Rabin accused “certain persons” in Labor of undertaking “hopelessly doomed gambits” — a reference to the unsuccessful wooing of Agudat Yisrael. He said such a move was responsible for causing “the prospective creation of a rightist-extremist Orthodox government and torpedoing the chances of a Likud-Labor government.”
Peres, in his own statement, acknowledged that the move toward the Agudah had failed. He said he now “looked forward to serving as a peace alternative in the opposition.”
But if Labor ultimately goes into opposition to the new government, there will undoubtedly be deep soul-searching within the party over its future.
Rabin apparently believes that process will end with the removal of Peres and his own re-ascendancy to the party leadership.
Like Peres, Rabin is a former prime minister. He succeeded the late Golda Meir in 1974 and bowed to Likud’s Menachem Begin in 1977.
But many political observers believe the “long knives” are about to be drawn in Labor circles, triggering a rebellion by a new generation of politicians that will eventually depose both of the former premiers.