Labor Makes Progress with Shas in Building Coalition Government

Yitzhak Rabin’s efforts to assemble a government are going well, with officials from Labor and other parties saying a coalition could be in place as early as Wednesday.

By Monday night, progress was again being claimed with the right-wing Tsomet party. Papering over the political gap between Tsomet and the left-wing Meretz bloc is one of the larger challenges faced by those drafting the new government’s policy guidelines.

After Meretz, acknowledged by Rabin as Labor’s natural ally, the second party to sign on to a Labor coalition is expected to be Shas, the ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, Sephardic party. The other haredi party, United Torah Judaism, is also expected to come on board.

Laying the groundwork for the expected alliance, Shas leader Arye Deri has solemnly pledged in writing to resign from the Cabinet in the event that criminal charges are brought against him.

Deri, who is interior minister in the outgoing Likud government, has been under police investigation for two years for alleged improper funneling of funds from his ministry, through local authorities, to Shas-related institutions.

Deri, who is the youngest Cabinet minister in Israel’s history, is also under investigation for personal financial improprieties.

Deri’s promise, delivered to Rabin in writing, was touted by the premier-to-be as representing “new norms in the behavior of ministers in such situations.”

Rabin said the Shas leader had wanted to “set an example” even before the government was formed.

HARD-LINE DEMANDS FROM TSOMET

Before Rabin’s public announcement Monday, Deri himself told reporters that “circles in the Likud” were seeking to upset the coalition negotiations.

Rabin consulted with Attorney General Yosef Harish before reaching his agreement with Deri.

The Labor Party leader made a point of criticizing the investigation of Deri for continuing two years without a conclusion. “Such matters need to be speeded up in the future,” he said.

Rabin’s announcement seemed likely to head off speculation that Deri’s legal situation was itself a covert subject of the coalition negotiations.

Political sources say the state attorney’s office is likely to press charges against Deri in regard to the transfers of government funds, regardless of the conclusions reached concerning personal malfeasance.

Sealing Shas, along with Meretz, into the coalition would give Labor 62 seats in the Knesset, enough for a viable, albeit narrow, coalition.

That possibility was being publicly floated over the weekend, in an apparent effort to weaken Tsomet’s bargaining position.

Tsomet, which Rabin wants in his coalition to balance the left-wing Meretz, had submitted a series of hard-line policy positions during negotiations last Friday.

If a three-party coalition were formed initially, Labor would leave open Cabinet posts for a limited period while continuing talks with Tsomet, the haredi United Torah Judaism and the National Religious Party.

The NRP, which with the failure of Tehiya to enter the Knesset has become the last redoubt of the Gush Emunim settler movement, seems the least likely to find a formula that would bridge its position on the territories with that of Labor.

Over the weekend, Rabin told the NRP’s Zevulun Hammer, who is the outgoing education minister, to forget any idea of Labor dropping Meretz in favor of an NRP-instigated bloc of right-of-center parties that would include Tsomet and the haredim.

Nevertheless, joining the opposition would not be easy for the NRP, which has been a member of every Israeli government and controlled the Ministry of Religious Affairs since 1948.

NRP officials have pointed out that new chief rabbis will be elected next year, and the party holding the Religious Affairs Ministry will naturally have influence over the course of those elections. Shas is likely to take over that ministry if NRP stays out.

NEXT STORY