JERUSALEM (Dec. 20)
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is facing a choice of tilting his Labor-led government to the right or holding on to his left-wing coalition partner, the Meretz bloc, in the wake of the expulsion last week of 415 Moslem fundamentalists.
So far, Rabin has given no indication of whether he will take up the offer of the right-wing Tsomet party and the National Religious Party to join the government in the face of a threat by Meretz to leave if he does so.
But his scheduled meeting Monday with Tsomet leader Rafael Eitan comes against a background of months of unsuccessful efforts to bring that party into the coalition and thereby broaden his narrow majority of 62 in the 120-member Knesset.
Meretz holds 12 Knesset seats, while Tsomet and the NRP command eight and six, respectively.
Eitan, a former army chief of staff who served in the previous Likud administration, told reporters Sunday he heartily approves of the expulsion decision and is now ready to join the Cabinet.
But the three Meretz ministers and the chairman of its parliamentary caucus, Yossi Sarid, informed Rabin on Sunday morning that if the two right-wing parties join the coalition, Meretz will immediately secede.
Sources said Eitan will seek assurances of continued government assistance to West Bank Jewish settlements situated within the parameters of the Allon Plan. Under that plan, which was laid out after the 1967 Six-Day War by the late Yigal Allon, Israel would continue to control areas along the Jordan River and strategic heights in Judea and Samaria.
Most of these are what the Rabin government has called “security settlements,” as opposed to those set up primarily for political reasons.
A National Religious Party politician also linked the settlement issue with membership in the government.
Yigal Bibi, chairman of the NRP parliamentary caucus, said a decision by Rabin to include Jewish settlements of Gush Etzion, a region near Bethlehem, in the “Priority A” category for government support was “a favorable signal” to the NRP.
Both Tsomet and the NRP deferred motions of no confidence each had introduced in the Knesset for debate this week.
But the main opposition party, Likud, has retained its own no-confidence motion. The party’s parliamentary caucus chairman, Moshe Katsav, said Likud supports the deportation decision, but feels the overall thrust of government policy and performance merits a no-confidence vote.
Eitan of Tsomet said reactions to the expulsions from abroad and in the administered territories intensified a sense of “national emergency” and created a basis for his party’s entry into the coalition.
But Sarid of Meretz told reporters that “any negotiation with Tsomet and/or the NRP with a view to changing the shape of the coalition would mean our immediate secession.”
The coalition agreement gives Meretz a veto over any such change in the coalition makeup, he pointed out.
Sarid disclosed that Rabin had agreed to hold a policy discussion in the Cabinet shortly on the status of the Palestine Liberation Organization. At that time, Meretz will be entitled to convey its view that Israel should open official negotiations with the PLO.
The prime minister noted, however, that his own party opposes such negotiations.
Sources within Meretz point out that while Labor is indeed formally committed to oppose negotiations with the PLO, many important figures in that party, including Cabinet ministers, are now openly in favor of such talks.
The latest Labor voice to urge negotiations with the PLO is that of Tourism Minister Uzi Baram. Baram was also quoted Sunday to the effect that he would “do everything I can” to prevent the addition of Tsomet and the NRP to the coalition.
The Meretz leadership’s opposition to an expanded Cabinet is being seen by analysts as a reflection of opposition within the party to the deportation decision, which all three Meretz ministers supported.
The central committee of the Citizens Rights Movement, the largest faction within Meretz, voted overwhelmingly late last Thursday night to deplore the expulsions as “collective punishment and a gross violation of human rights and international justice.”
Shulamit Aloni, who heads both the CRM and Meretz overall, said later that the committee members did not know the full facts. She stressed that the expulsions were for limited duration, as opposed to the open-ended exiles of the past.
But clearly she and her colleagues in the Cabinet were rattled by the extent and vociferousness of opposition among their own rank and file.