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News Analysis: Stakes Are High if Labor and Likud End Their Marriage of Convenience

The Labor Party and the Likud have maneuvered themselves into a virtual divorce, though, on the face of it, both have every reason to preserve their marriage of convenience.

The alternative would seem to be a return to the chaotic, divisive political situation that prevailed after the inconclusive Knesset elections last November.

The Labor Party Executive, its top leadership forum, voted overwhelmingly Monday to end Labor’s coalition with Likud, which it accused of wrecking the peace initiative undertaken by both parties.

The initiative envisions Palestinian elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to be followed by negotiations with Israel, first for a five-year interim period of Palestinian self-rule and, later on, to determine the final status of the territories.

The plan was hammered out by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the Likud leader, and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the No. 2 man in the Labor Party hierarchy.

But the Likud Central Committee, which met on July 5, overwhelmingly endorsed a set of four principles proposed by party hard-liners.

They placed new restrictions and preconditions on the peace plan, rendering it unpalatable to even moderate Palestinians who might have been persuaded to endorse it.

STRATEGIES SHAMIR IS CONSIDERING

The Central Committee move was seen as a defeat for Shamir at the hands of his party’s extreme right wing, led by Ministers Ariel Sharon, David Levy and Yitzhak Moda’i.

But the feisty Shamir insists that he won the battle. There is “absolutely no change in the peace initiative,” he told a visiting West German politician Tuesday.

That being the case, as far as Shamir is concerned, the partnership with Labor should continue.

While he appeared to be denying the obvious, associates of the prime minister were outlining stratagems by which he could turn tables on his right flank.

Shamir could ask the Cabinet to reaffirm its endorsement of the original peace initiative, which it gave all but unanimous approval in May.

Such a move would put Sharon and his allies in the minority within the government or force them to vote for the plan in its pristine form.

Another option open to the prime minister is to talk with influential Palestinians in the territories.

That would demonstrate that he is not bound by Sharon’s principle that no negotiations can begin before the 19-month-old Palestinian uprising is permanently crushed, Shamir’s aides said.

The problem there is to find any Palestinians of influence who would agree to meet with Shamir in the present circumstances.

It is also questionable whether Labor would play along with Shamir’s attempt to assert leadership in the peace process.

Clearly, Labor’s patience is running out and so is the influence of those Laborites who support a continued partnership with Likud.

BOTH PARTIES BUYING TIME

Still, Israeli politicians never slam the door. The Labor Executive’s decision was only a recommendation. It must be approved by the party’s 1,300-member Central Committee.

No date has been set for the Central Committee to convene on the matter, but it is unlikely to meet before August.

Labor’s final word, therefore, is left hanging, with ample time for patching up differences with Likud.

But it remains for Shamir to prove he still leads his own party, and the peace initiative is a major test of strength.

If the prime minister can pull off a vote of confidence in the Cabinet, he will have given Labor the assurances it needs to postpone a decision to leave the government.

There is one rumor floating that if Sharon continues to be recalcitrant, Shamir may dismiss him from the government, where he now holds the industry and trade portfolio.

What all of this boils down to is that both Labor and Likud are buying time. For if the present government falls, the consequences are unpleasant to contemplate.

Labor is not likely to prevail in new elections, since the Palestinian uprising has propelled the electorate further to the right.

But Likud has no more chance of winning a governing majority now than it did in the last elections.

In their coalition agreement last year, Likud and Labor pledged that if either party broke the alliance, they would submit motions to dissolve the Knesset and hold new elections within 100 days.

But no one expects the parties to abide by that agreement if either one thinks it has a chance to from a government with the minority parties.

COMPETITION FOR RELIGIOUS BACKING

That means Likud would try to put together a narrow-based coalition with the ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties.

Labor would try to do the same, though its task would be harder, because it would be seeking a coalition of incompatible elements: the anti-religious left wing and the ultra-Orthodox.

In either case, the ultra-Orthodox would be placed in a position of power far exceeding their electoral strength.

Shamir, and Vice Premier Shimon Peres, the Labor Party leader, have both started a tentative courting of the religious parties.

Shamir met Monday with leaders of Shas, the National Religious Party and the Agudat Yisrael. Peres had a talk with Rabbi Menahem Pinhas Alter, the Vizhnitzer rebbe.

If a government crisis becomes inevitable, those talks will intensify. Both major parties will be courting the rabbis, as they did after the elections last year.

That will mean promising to enact legislation that could impose Orthodox religious practices on Israel’s largely secular population and, at the same time, alienate large numbers of Conservative and Reform Jews overseas.

On the political side, a right-wing coalition led by Likud would change the face of Israel.

Sharon would surely get his wish to be appointed defense minister, the office he held during the disastrous Lebanon war in 1982.

Other ministers would be likely to come from the far right.

People like Rafael Eitan of Tsomet, Rehavam Ze’evi of Moledet, and Geula Cohen and Yuval Ne’eman of Tehiya could make Sharon and his hard-line Likud allies look like moderates, some analysts say.

Advocates of a Labor departure from the national unity government spoke this week of serving heroically as a principled force in the opposition.

But they may find themselves fighting courageously in the opposition, while a new kind of Israel is formed before their very eyes.

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