News Analysis: Parties Working to Avoid Split, but Coalition Crisis Not over Yet

The political crisis threatening to bring down the Likud-Labor unity government continued to smolder this week and could flare up at any time.

It will persist as long as Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is unable to overcome pressure from hard-line Likud ministers to impose preconditions and constraints on his peace initiative that make it unacceptable to the Labor Party and out of the question for the Palestinians.

Some observers here believe the United States, upset by recent events, is engaged in damage control, in cooperation with Shamir and his allies.

While powerful elements in both parties are working hard to avoid a split, there are determined, vocal minorities in each which, for various reasons, would like to see the seven-month-old Labor-Likud alliance brought to an end.

At the beginning of the week, expectations were high that the crisis would soon be resolved.

Shamir met early Sunday morning with Vice Premier Shimon Peres, the Labor Party leader, and with Labor’s No. 2 man, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who is co-author of the government peace plan.

Pundits assumed a search was under way for a face-saving formula that would save the coalition.

The need is to convince Labor — or for Labor to pretend to be convinced — that the Shamir plan remains unchanged, despite new conditions imposed on it at the Likud Central Committee meeting on July 5.

SHAMIR OUTMANEUVERED BY RIVALS

Those conditions were demanded by Likud hard-liners Ariel Sharon, David Levy and Yitzhak Moda’i, who have made no secret of their desire to abort the plan or alter it to the same effect.

A ploy by Shamir to outmaneuver his rivals failed at Sunday’s Cabinet session.

By prior arrangement, Interior Minister Arye Deri of Shas, one of the three religious parties in the coalition, asked the prime minister a question about the peace initiative.

It was worded to allow Shamir to reply that “the initiative has not undergone any change or alteration, nor is there any intention to insert any change or alteration.”

But an attempt to have the Cabinet affirm the prime minister’s statement by vote was blocked.

Peres said he needed time to examine what precisely he was being asked to support.

Moda’i, who is minister of economics and planning and leader of Likud’s Liberal Party wing, insisted that a counter-statement of his own be put to a vote.

Later in the week, Levy observed in a speech to the party faithful that a “planted question” and an artificial answer at the Cabinet were not acceptable.

He accused Shamir of arm-twisting younger Likud ministers who he claimed wanted to uphold “the party’s principles” but were being threatened with sanctions.

Levy, who holds the rank of deputy premier, lashed out at attempts to “paper over” the differences between Likud and Labor, saying both parties were dishonored.

On the Labor side, there is an apparent split between Peres and Rabin. Peres, who is skeptical of Shamir’s motives, is leaning toward the stance of a bloc of 18, mostly younger Labor Knesset members who think the coalition with Likud was a mistake from the start.

RABIN TAKING CUES FROM WASHINGTON?

Rabin, who previously accused Likud of “throttling” the peace initiative, now clearly wants to save the coalition. He is prepared to accept Shamir’s repeated assertions that “nothing has changed” about the peace initiative.

He may be taking cues from Washington, which is closely involved in the affair — too closely for the taste of some Israelis.

As long as the U.S. State Department blamed the Likud amendments for killing the prospect of Palestinian elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Rabin was prepared to quit the government.

But when Secretary of State James Baker indicated in a television interview Sunday that the United States accepts Shamir’s assurances that the new Likud conditions mean nothing, Rabin’s position also changed.

He is now Labor’s firmest advocate of continuing the unity government.

Those developments have raised speculation here that Shamir, Rabin and Baker are coordinating a joint strategy to contain the damage caused by the Likud rebels.

Each of them wants to keep the peace initiative on track, if at all possible, and they are cooperating to that end, observers believe.

One significant sidelight in the whole affair is the emergence of Interior Minister Deri as a mediator and go-between.

Deri, who is of Moroccan origin, is one of the dovish members of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. He gained political status this week as one of three Orthodox Sephardic leaders to visit Egypt at the invitation of President Hosni Mubarak.

He was accompanied by Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, and Immigration and Absorption Minister Yitzhak Peretz, also of Shas.

Deri had an unscheduled meeting Tuesday in Cairo with Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid. He is believed to have been entrusted to convey a message from Shamir to Mubarak, with whom Deri was to meet Wednesday.

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