JERUSALEM (Mar. 8)
The leaders of Labor and Likud were engaged in a fierce tug-of-war for the allegiance of the religious parties on Thursday, as the deadline approached for decisions that could spell the end of their unity coalition government.
Vice Premier Shimon Peres, the Labor Party chairman, was busy sounding out the Orthodox factions on the chances of their joining a narrowly based Labor-led government.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who heads the Likud bloc, was equally active trying to prevent such a denouement.
The 12-member Inner Cabinet, the government’s top policy-making body, is scheduled to decide Sunday whether to accept U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s latest compromise proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.
Likud has serious misgivings. Labor served notice that if the deadlock continued, which would be tantamount to a negative response, it would leave the coalition.
One of the key issues between the two parties is whether East Jerusalem Arabs should be allowed to participate in the dialogue and in the Palestinian elections the dialogue is supposed to arrange.
Likud is adamantly opposed, contending that would compromise Israel’s claim to sovereignty over the united city.
Labor sees no such danger. It is prepared to accept Baker’s formula by which East Jerusalemites could be part of a Palestinian delegation if they also have a residence in the West Bank.
FOCUS ON BAKER’S PROPOSALS
Shamir said Thursday that the Inner Cabinet session would focus on Baker’s proposals and no less on Likud’s demand that Labor reverse itself on Jerusalem.
Peres complained that the prime minister was deliberately playing up the Jerusalem dispute with the Orthodox parties to imply that Labor is less dedicated than Likud to Israel’s sovereignty over the holy city.
Shamir met Thursday with the two ministers of the Shas party, Yitzhak Peretz and Arye Deri.
Peretz, who is minister of absorption, agreed with Shamir on the peril to Jerusalem.
But Interior Minister Deri agreed with Peres. Political observers said the party’s position would be determined not by them but by Shas’ spiritual mentor, the former Sephardic chief rabbi, Ovadia Yosef.
Shamir also invited Agudat Yisrael for talks but was rebuffed.
Agudah has been down on Likud since the 1988 elections, when it claims Shamir reneged on promises he had made to it on religious issues.
The prime minister found a more receptive audience among the hard-line leaders of the National Religious Party.
Peres, however is counting on the Orthodox factions — Shas, Agudah and Degel HaTorah — to join Labor in a government with the left-wing Citizens Rights Movement, Mapam and Shinui.
Meanwhile, the position of Labor’s No. 2 leader, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, remained ambiguous. He maintained that Labor’s emphasis should be on keeping the government and peace process alive.