Coalition jockeying in Israel intensified this week as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin tried to end a crisis that threatens to bring down his Labor-led coalition just three months after it was formed.
After the Sukkot holiday break, Rabin again found himself trying to persuade his two coalition partners to pre-empt a threat posed by opposition motions of no confidence.
The motions attack statements made by Education Minister Shulamit Aloni on religious issues. They are to be debated in the Knesset on Nov. 2.
Shas, the Sephardic religious party, will vote against the government of which it is now a member, Rabin was told Tuesday night by the party’s spiritual mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
The prime minister reported this to Aloni and other leaders of the left-wing Meretz bloc the following day, describing the crisis as “very serious.”
The Meretz leaders, Aloni among them, later told reporters Rabin had “neither demanded nor suggested” that Aloni give up the education and culture portfolio, as Shas is demanding.
But sources close to Rabin say the prime minister would indeed be gratified if Meretz agreed to switch Aloni and Amnon Rubinstein, presently the minister of energy.
As part of the deal, Meretz would receive a fourth Cabinet seat, Aloni would become deputy prime minister and would continue to head the culture side of the Ministry of Education and Culture, according to media reports.
Political sources say there is pressure on Aloni from within her own party to agree to this sort of compromise as a way of saving the government and with it the peace process.
Meretz’s public position, reiterated Tuesday night, is that any diminution of Minister Aloni’s standing” will lead to the party’s immediate secession from the government.
In theory, that formulation leaves the way open for a switch of portfolios that does not mean “diminution” of Aloni’s standing. But she herself has reportedly said she will refuse to leave the education post and that if Rabin wants her out, he will have to fire her.
Without Meretz and its 12 Knesset seats, Rabin cannot govern. Without Shas and its six parliamentary mandates, he retains an arithmetic majority, given the tacit support of the Arab parties; but he would find it politically impossible to make concessions to the Arab side in the peace talks with so thin a public mandate.
Rabin still hopes to broaden the coalition by co-opting the United Torah Judaism bloc, which has four Knesset seats and is itself a mini-coalition of two haredi (fervently Orthodox) parties: Agudat Yisrael and Degel HaTorah.
Agudah rabbis are said to be divided over whether they would favor joining the government if Aloni were removed from Education. While some are in favor, they have in mind the opposition of the venerable Rabbi Eliezer Shach of Bnei Brak, who reportedly insists the haredi parties stay out of a government that has Meretz in it.
As Rabbi Yosef of Shas met with Rabin at his Jerusalem home Tuesday night, another member of the Shas Council of Sages called on Shach in Bnei Brak.
Sources close to Shach said Rabbi Shalom Cohen got short shrift from the 95- year-old head of the Ponevezh yeshiva, who said the continued presence of Shas in a government with Meretz was “a desecration of the name of God.”