News Analysis; Rabin Faces Security and Political Challenges Upon Return from U.S.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has returned from his successful visit in the United States only to face a barrage of challenges at home, ranging from the worsening security situation to new political crises in his ruling coalition.

The need for Rabin to regain control over security was re-emphasized by the latest attack in the current wave of violence when a Palestinian stormed into a Jewish schoolyard here on Monday, wounding five students and a teacher.

On the political level, the prime minister faces fierce criticism from opposition parties as well as bickering between the left-wing Meretz and the Orthodox Shas parties within his coalition.

And finally, on the diplomatic front, Rabin has little to show with regard to progress on the peace process.

Although Rabin was able to point to the unusually warm tone of his talks with President Clinton, the Americans were unable to assure him that the Palestinians would return to the next round of peace negotiations, scheduled for next month in Washington.

In the Knesset on Monday, Likud members spearheaded a bitter assault on the government, flaying Rabin in a debate on no-confidence motions submitted by all the rightist factions.

Rabin, who also holds the defense portfolio, was blasted for his handling of the current spate of violence, which has claimed 10 Israeli lives this month.

Former Likud minister Ariel Sharon also lashed out at the government in a newspaper editorial in which he said the army was signaling weakness, impotence and disorder to the Palestinians.

Rabin, both in Washington and back home in Jerusalem, has asserted repeatedly that ultimately the real solution to the terrorist threat is a political settlement between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab countries.

But the still-to-be-resumed peace process has shown no signs of an imminent breakthrough.

The Palestinian delegation to the peace talks, and its leadership in Tunis, the Palestine Liberation Organization, were sending mixed signals on whether they were prepared to resume negotiations before a satisfactory resolution to the deportees issue is reached.

The 400 or so Palestinian activists deported by Israel from the administered territories are still encamped in south Lebanon and continue to reject Israel’s offer to repatriate 101 of them at once and the rest before the year’s end.

Rabin has acknowledged that his pre-election campaign promise that an autonomy accord would be signed within nine months of his election was overly sanguine.

Regarding the negotiations with the Syrians, Rabin himself has spoken in terms of a three-to-six-month “feeler” period before Israel and Syria are ready to enter nuts-and-bolts bargaining over a land-for-peace deal on the Golan Heights.

Rabin’s difficulties on the security and diplomatic fronts have inevitably sapped his strength to deal with recurring problems in his coalition.

While Rabin was off in the United States last week, the Knesset voted to remove the parliamentary immunity of Rafael Pinhasi, deputy minister of religion and a leader of the Shas party, so that he could face charges of corruption in dealing with party finances.

The upshot was a surge of resentment within Shas focused on the Labor Party, several of whose Knesset members voted in favor of stripping Pinhasi’s immunity.

Some Shas leaders were calling for the Sephardic Orthodox party to withdraw from the coalition.

“The day Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (spiritual mentor of Shas) instructs us to walk out will be the happiest day of my life,” said Interior Minister Arye Deri, head of Shas.

But political observers insisted that Deri’s statement was merely rhetoric and that the interior minister, who is facing a rigorous police interrogation over alleged financial improprieties, has no interest in having Shas quit the government.

SHAS UNDER PRESSURE TO LEAVE GOVERNMENT

Nevertheless, Shas is under heavy pressure to leave the government both from its own mainly hard-line constituency and from rival Orthodox parties.

Deri has called on Rabin to broaden the base of the ruling coalition by adding additional partners. Deri argued that if more parties joined the coalition, pressure on Shas would be eased.

Given the current coalition’s slim majority, the government would fall if Shas withdrew its support.

However, Rabin’s other partner, Meretz, opposes the addition of either the National Religious Party or the right-wing Tsomet party.

Meretz might accept United Torah Judaism, another Orthodox party, but that party’s rabbis have demanded the removal of Meretz’s strident and outspoken leader, Shulamit Aloni, from the sensitive education portfolio.

One compromise solution would be for Rabin to shift Aloni to head another ministry.

For the time being, Aloni refuses to switch positions and her party colleagues are supporting her.

Commentators have suggested that Aloni might be willing to become foreign minister, but that would mean shifting Shimon Peres, who currently holds that position.

This in turn would only work if Rabin were prepared to name Peres defense minister, something Rabin appears loath to do.

The stability of Rabin’s coalition was to be tested March 24, when the Knesset was scheduled to choose Israel’s new president, a largely ceremonial post.

Labor has put forward as its candidate former minister Ezer Weizman and asked its coalition partners to vote for him.

Shas sources were rumbling about voting for the opposition candidate, former Knesset Speaker Dov Shilansky, as an expression of their dis-gruntlement.

Some observers believe that if the coalition held together to ensure Weizman’s election, then Rabin will have shown he is still in control, despite his many pressing problems.

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