News Analysis: with Likud-labor Relations at a Low, Pundits Talking of Next Government
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News Analysis: with Likud-labor Relations at a Low, Pundits Talking of Next Government

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Less than a year after the last Knesset elections, Israelis are focusing on the possibility of new elections very soon, resulting from the expected breakdown of the Likud-Labor unity government.

That expectation, in fact, is so ripe that pundits are already mulling over the possible new political alliances that may emerge.

The political crisis ballooned suddenly when Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Labor’s No. 2 man, went to Cairo on Monday without the prior blessing of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the Likud leader.

Rabin met with President Hosni Mubarak to discuss Egypt’s 10-point paper outlining the terms of proposed Palestinian elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

While Likud and Labor are united on the principle of holding elections, which Israel first suggested last spring, the two parties are divided on the specifics of implementing the elections.

Likud flatly rejected Mubarak’s proposals Sunday, only two days after Egypt’s ambassador to Israel formally presented them to the government.

Labor is prepared to discuss the Egyptian points, which include allowing East Jerusalem Arabs to participate in the elections, international supervision of the referendum and withdrawal of the Israel Defense Force from the vicinity of polling places.

While Labor is amenable to the “land-for-peace” principle that Egypt insists must be the basis of the whole process, Likud is firmly opposed to relinquishing more territory.

With such glaring differences between the partners, it is difficult for many observers to see how the present coalition can survive.

SHAMIR FEELS BETRAVED BY RABIN

An examination of the three main players in the unfolding political drama — Likud, Labor and the ultra-Orthodox bloc, which traditionally holds the balance of power — may cast light on what is likely to transpire in the next few weeks.

As far as Likud is concerned, Shamir would like the present coalition to survive. But he has stated bluntly that there are “things more valuable than unity.”

He feels himself personally betrayed by Rabin, who failed to coordinate his Cairo visit with the prime minister.

The two men met for little over an hour Tuesday to discuss Rabin’s talks with Mubarak. Neither they nor their aides had anything to say afterward.

But Shamir told a correspondent for the Canada-based Sun newspaper chain that he might know in a few days whether his differences with Rabin can be resolved.

Rabin was in fact co-author with Shamir of the Israeli peace initiative unveiled on May 14.

It calls for the Palestinians to elect delegates who would negotiate with Israel for interim self-rule in the territories and eventually a permanent settlement.

Observers who thought the latest crisis would have the effect of closing ranks within Likud proved mistaken.

On Tuesday morning, Ariel Sharon, the outspoken minister of industry and trade and aspirant for Shamir’s job, delivered a blistering attack on the prime minister. He accused Shamir of leaving most of the Cabinet out of the policymaking process.

DISENCHANTMENT WITH PERES

Sharon railed against the fact that Shamir, together with his seem to have formed a rump Cabinet with Rabin and Vice Premier Shimon Peres, the Labor Party boss, to deal with Egypt’s diplomatic moves.

Sharon complained there has been no reference so far to the Inner Cabinet — five Likud and five Labor ministers — which is supposed to be the government’s top policy-making forum.

If the differences with Labor cannot be resolved, Shamir is expected to press for early elections. He seems to believe an election campaign would subdue his own party’s internal rivalries and force a divided and unprepared Labor Party into a contest it does not want at this time.

As for Labor, the immediate effect of Rabin’s trip to Cairo and the looming political crisis has been to paper over cracks in the party’s facade.

In fact, the imminent Histadrut labor federation elections, scheduled for November, have caused warring elements to call a cease-fire. But no one doubts that internal warfare would flare anew if the unity government collapses.

Observers discern basic tactical differences between Peres and his longtime rival Rabin.

If the unity government falls, Peres will try to put together a narrow-based, Labor-led coalition government with the religious parties, observers say. Rabin would instead opt for elections, with himself heading the Labor ticket.

The conventional wisdom in Labor ranks is that Rabin would handily win a leadership contest with Peres at this time. Both men have been prime ministers.

Peres, for all of his cerebral qualities, is seen as a “loser” — or at least not a winner.

He has led the party through four election campaigns and failed to win any of them decisively, not even in 1984, when Likud was saddled with responsibility for a sour economy and the unpopular Lebanon war.

ORTHODOX MAY NOW BE WISER

It is unclear, however, whether Rabin would actually seek to block an attempt by Peres and his supporters to form a narrow government with the Orthodox.

As for the religious parties, it remains to be seen whether the ultra-Orthodox learned from their chastening experience in 1988, when, having overplayed their hand, they were eventually spurned by both major parties.

This time around, they may exhibit greater caution and wisdom.

Statements made last week by Menahem Porush, an Agudat Yisrael Knesset member, and by Interior Minister Arye Deri of Shas have pointed to strong pro-peace forces in both parties, which would put them in the Labor camp.

But both Agudah and Shas have forceful hawkish elements in their ranks, who point to pro-Likud sentiments among their grass-roots supporters.

The upcoming Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holidays will be a time not only of personal introspection and repentance by Israeli politicians, but one in which they will have to think hard about their personal futures.

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