Tsomet Pulls out of Government over Likud Stand Against Reform

The Israeli government received an unexpected jolt Tuesday, when the Tsomet party quit the Likud-led coalition and its leader, Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan, submitted his resignation to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

The departure of the far-right faction, which holds two Knesset seats, leaves the governing coalition with a still comfortable 64-vote margin in the 120-member parliament.

But the fear in Likud circles is that Tsomet’s action may trigger defections by the right-wing Tehiya and Moledet parties, which would deprive the government of five more Knesset mandates and possibly force it to resign.

All three rightist parties, uneasy over peace talks with the Arabs, have vowed to leave the government if and when substantive negotiations begin on Palestinian autonomy.

But Tsomet’s move was unrelated to the peace talks, which are scheduled to resume in Washington next month.

Eitan quit because Likud’s Central Committee voted overwhelmingly late Sunday to reject an electoral reform bill pending in the Knesset that would provide for the direct election of the prime minister.

He and Tsomet Knesset member Yoash Zidon had a brief but reportedly tense meeting with Shamir on Tuesday.

A WEEK TO CHANGE HIS MIND

Eitan told reporters afterward that he asked Shamir if the Central Committee’s action was binding on all Likud Knesset members. If so, he said it would violate the coalition agreement Tsomet signed with Likud last year, in which Likud promised to allow its members a free vote on the issue.

According to Eitan, Shamir said the Central Committee’s vote was not formally binding on Likud’s Knesset faction. But he declined to put that in writing, whereupon Eitan resigned.

Within hours, aides were clearing out his desk, and Eitan informed the Knesset secretariat that he would not appear in the chamber for a question-and-answer session later Tuesday.

Under Israeli law, a minister’s resignation takes effect 48 hours after it is submitted to the full Cabinet. The Cabinet meets next on Sunday, which gives Eitan a week to change his mind.

But the former Israel Defense Force chief of staff said he would not revoke his resignation unless Shamir states publicly that Likud Knesset members are not bound by the Central Committee’s decision against electoral reform.

That decision, urged by Shamir, sealed the doom of the reform measure, which is due for its second reading in the Knesset next week.

Many Likud leaders, including Shamir, originally supported reforms that would end the unseemly coalition bargaining process and reduce the disproportionate political influence of small single-issue parties.

But Shamir and 80 percent of the 3,400-member Central Committee opposed it Sunday.

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