Labor Encounters Early Snags in Effort to Build a Coalition

While Yitzhak Rabin was not expected to be formally handed the task of assembling Israel’s next government until Thursday, the Labor Party leader was already juggling conflicting demands from prospective coalition partners by midweek.

Both the left-wing Meretz bloc and the right-wing Tsomet party, which are being courted by Rabin, indicated Wednesday that they could not accept a draft of Labor’s proposed policy guidelines for the new government, which was released Tuesday.

The policy guidelines outline a new government’s basic program and formally commit it to pursue certain objectives. Parties being courted to join the government generally insist that the document include matters of particular importance to them.

At least publicly, Rabin has indicated he wants to form a broad-based governing coalition that would include left-wing, religious and even right-wing parties.

In an attempt to woo the right-wing parties, the premier-to-be reportedly insisted on modifications in the policy guidelines draft, which had been written by a team made up of Knesset members David Libai, Haim Ramon and Moshe Shahal.

For instance, a provision calling for a freeze on the construction of “political settlements” was dropped by Rabin and replaced with a call for reinforcing settlements along “confrontation lines.”

While Rabin has made it clear that he opposes building settlements for ideological motives, but favors those started for security purposes, the change was intended to highlight the latter rather than the former.

MILITARY EXEMPTIONS AN ISSUE

But if the purpose of the substitution was to avoid antagonizing Tsomet, which favors settlement-building and opposes territorial compromise, the move did not succeed.

The party’s new eight-member Knesset faction, led by former Israel Defense Force chief of staff Rafael Eitan, said the draft’s pledge to continue strengthening front-line settlements did not go far enough.

Meretz, which favors a total freeze on settlements, was also miffed, charging that the amended document smacked of the Likud’s longstanding policy stances.

The 12-seat party did not buy Labor’s argument that a phrase in the draft pledging the government would do nothing to jeopardize the ongoing peace talks with the Palestinians amounted to a commitment not to build political settlements.

Thus Labor’s initial effort to bridge the chasm on peace and security issues between its two disparate potential coalition partners seemed to flounder.

Meretz also voiced dissatisfaction over the draft’s pledge to examine “in all its aspects” the issue of military service exemptions for yeshiva students, insisting that the time frame of such an examination be rigorously limited.

Both Meretz and Tsomet want to do away with the exemptions, which allow students at ultra-Orthodox yeshivot to skip the three-year compulsory military service and the one-month-a-year reserve duty that Israeli men serve until age 55.

But Rabin is also courting the ultra-Orthodox haredi parties, which have declared that any change in the religious status quo would be viewed as “a matter of life and death.”

FORMAL TALKS BEGIN FRIDAY

As a result, Shas and United Torah Judaism are unlikely to accept a provision in the draft guidelines suggesting that the government “study” the allocation of state funds to yeshivot and their students, to create “a universal egalitarian basis for yeshiva students and all other students in the country.”

All specially allocated funds given to religious institutions under past coalition agreements will be annulled, the draft says.

While it appears that almost every one of Labor’s potential coalition partners now has something to complain about, Labor leaders professed themselves unfazed by the snags that have emerged. They are still hoping to have a government in place by the time the new Knesset convenes on July 13.

Rabin was invited to meet with President Chaim Herzog on Thursday, when he was expected to be asked formally to begin the task of assembling a coalition.

Earlier in the week, the president carried out his statutory duty to consult with each of the parties elected to the Knesset about whom he should appoint to form the new government. Sixty-nine members of the new Knesset recommended Rabin.

Labor is expected to begin formal coalition negotiations with Meretz and Tsomet on Friday. And similar talks with Shas and United Torah Judaism are slated for Sunday.

In light of Labor’s initial difficulties with Meretz, the National Religious Party stepped up its efforts Wednesday to create an “alternative bloc” that could provide Rabin with a solid majority while leaving Meretz out.

Leaders of NRP, Tsomet and United Torah Judaism met informally at the Tel Aviv home of United’s leader, Avraham Shapiro, to discuss, as he put it, “where the shoe (that is, the Labor draft) hurts each one of us.”

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