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Rabin’s Popularity in Labor Growing As Peres Struggles to Woo Orthodox

The Labor Party seems to have lost confidence in its longtime leader, Shimon Peres, since his attempt to establish a new coalition government was thwarted last week by the 11th-hour defections of two ultra-Orthodox Knesset members.

Although the prime minister-designate is continuing his efforts under a new 15-day mandate granted by President Chaim Herzog, his chances appear to depend more than ever on the vagaries of the religious bloc, which is itself wracked by factional rivalry.

Accordingly, Laborites are looking for guidance to their No. 2 man, former Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The party’s Leadership Bureau is scheduled to meet Thursday to review the coalition-making situation.

Political insiders suspect that barring a Peres breakthrough by then, the party brass will demand openly that the chairman step down as prime ministerial candidate, in favor of the more popular Rabin.

Peres has brushed off hints that he might move aside. But the insiders say informal contacts already have been made between circles close to Rabin and elements in the Likud camp about the possibility of reconstituting the unity coalition.

This time, Rabin and Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir would rotate the office of prime minister between them, just as Peres and Shamir shared it consecutively after the 1984 Knesset elections resulted in a dead heat between the two major parties.

Should a new unity government emerge, however, most observers believe its overriding mission would be to enact bold reforms of the electoral system to end the hold that small religious parties have on Israel’s political structure.

VERDIGER WITHDRAWS RESIGNATION

Grass-roots sentiment for reform is gaining rapidly in the aftermath of Peres’ fiasco on April 11, the date his original 21-day mandate expired.

Convinced he had a 61-vote majority in the Knesset, Peres was about to present his slate for a vote of confidence when two of the five members of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party, Avraham Verdiger and Eliezer Mizrahi, announced they could not vote for a Labor-led government on ideological grounds.

They were in open defiance of their party’s supreme authority, its Council of Torah Sages, which had given its blessings only a week earlier to an Agudah coalition agreement with Labor.

Mizrahi promptly quit Agudah, but retained his Knesset seat as an independent and committed himself to support Likud.

Verdiger initially resigned from the Knesset, a move that would allow Agudah to swear in the next man on its party list, David Halachmi, who presumably would obey the spiritual leaders’ decision to back Labor.

But by law, resignations take effect only after a 48-hour cooling-off period. And only minutes before that deadline expired Friday morning, Verdiger changed his mind.

He said he would remain an Agudah member of the Knesset for the moment, leaving open how he would vote on the next confidence motion.

Verdiger made no effort to conceal his obedience to the wishes of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who presides over the worldwide Chabad movement from headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y.

DISCORD WITHIN LIKUD

On Sunday, Verdiger proudly displayed a faxed message from Schneerson welcoming his decision not to leave the Knesset.

But without all five Agudah votes, Labor would still be a vote short of a majority.

Peres indicated that his efforts arc now aimed at the ultra-Orthodox Shas party in hope that its spiritual mentor, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, will reconsider his earlier decision to support Likud. Yosef is known to be dovish on peace and security.

Meanwhile, all is not smooth in the Likud camp, where Shamir seems about to reward four defectors with safe scats and ministerial posts for returning to the fold.

Likud’s 3,000-membcr Central Committee will meet Thursday in Jerusalem to endorse an agreement with the prodigals, led by Yitzhak Moda’i, until recently one of Shamir’s most outspoken critics.

But because there is a great deal of resentment among the Likud rank and file, the outcome of the Central Committee meeting is not a foregone conclusion.

REMINDER: The JTA Daily News Bulletin will not be published Tuesday, April 17.

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