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A Badly Split Labor Party Moving Toward Backing Unity Government

The National Religious Party appeared to gain ground Wednesday in its efforts to get Labor and Likud to reconstitute their unity government.

But it may have set off tremors that could create serious divisions within both major parties, especially Labor, where the more dovish elements were in open revolt.

The NRP proposed to launch negotiations between the two big blocs, both of which have failed so far in their efforts to set up narrow coalition governments.

The most positive response came from former Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his supporters in the Labor Party. There was a less enthusiastic reception from Likud.

Acting Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was non-committal. He said he would study NRP’s proposals with the amendments offered by Rabin and consult with his Likud colleagues.

But two Likud ministers, Moshe Katsav and David Magen, were worried about the effects joining a unity government would have on the agreements their party has concluded with three right-wing factions: Tehiya, Tsomet and Moledet.

Katsav, who is minister of transport, said Likud prefers a narrow-based government at this time.

Shamir was given the mandate to form a government by President Chaim Herzog on April 27. He has until May 18 to accomplish the task, though he may ask for a 21-day extension.

He needs NRP’s five Knesset votes and the five of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to establish a Likud-led government.

A REVOLT BY LABOR DOVES

While both religious parties are leaning toward Likud, they would prefer another unity government and want to exhaust all possibilities before committing themselves to Shamir.

Labor is in disarray. Rabin has publicly challenged Shimon Peres for the party leadership, blaming him for its failure to form a Labor-led coalition after 36 days of fruitless efforts that ended on April 26.

He called the recent coalition horse-trading “a stinking exercise,” a direct slap at Peres.

Rabin’s support for a new Labor alliance with Likud has enraged the party’s doves. One of them, former Science and Development Minister Ezer Weizman, stormed out of the party leadership meeting Wednesday.

Labor must lead a fighting opposition while Likud and its right-wing allies show the nation “their true colors,” he declared.

Two other Laborites walked out with him; Yossi Beilin, a close aide to Peres, and Haim Ramon, chairman of the party’s Knesset faction.

Labor’s left-leaning allies were even more scathing in their criticism of a unity government.

Citizens Rights Movement leader Shulamit Aloni called the decision to negotiate with Likud a “death sentence” for the Labor Party. She urged Labor doves to break away now and form a moderate opposition bloc with CRM, Mapam and the Center-Shinui Movement.

Amnon Rubinstein of Shinui accused Labor of “crawling” back into a Likud-led government. Mapam said it felt “swindled” by Labor and insisted that elections are the only solution.

NRP leaders warned Wednesday that there were still major obstacles to a unity government. They cited Labor’s insistence on “balance” in any new government, whereas NRP noted that parity in the policy-making Inner Cabinet more frequently than not has resulted in paralysis.

NO AGREEMENT ON BAKER PLAN

But the crucial issue, the one over which the last unity government collapsed, has not been resolved. It concerns U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s proposal that Israel engage in preliminary dialogue with a Palestinian delegation, prior to holding elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Labor is amenable to the plan, but Likud is opposed. Rabin said Labor is willing to let the issue be decided by the full Cabinet or by the Knesset to avoid another Inner Cabinet impasse.

But he was vague in comments to reporters later as to whether his party is still demanding a favorable Israeli response to Baker’s proposal as a condition for joining a government.

Peres, by contrast, pointed out that Labor’s Leadership Bureau, its formal policy-making body, decided unanimously last time it met that a favorable response to Baker was essential.

He claimed the outcome of Wednesday’s meeting was “not a decision, but rather an ongoing clarification with the NRP.”

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