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Rabin in Intensive Consultations to Avert Breakup of His Coalition

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In an effort to avert a major political crisis, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has been holding intensive meetings with leaders of his two coalition partners, which are engaged in a bitter feud with one another.

The Orthodox Sephardic Shas party has threatened to quit the government Sunday, if Shulamit Aloni, leader of the left-wing Meretz bloc, is not removed from her post as education minister.

Shas believes Aloni’s many controversial statements have demonstrated a demeaning and insulting attitude toward religion and Judaism, and should be cause enough for her dismissal.

Rabin met with Aloni on Thursday and was scheduled to meet later that night with the head of the Shas party, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri. He had plans to meet again with Aloni on Sunday before the weekly Cabinet meeting.

Rabin’s fragile coalition has been dogged by crises throughout its tenure, most of them focusing on Aloni’s controversial utterances and Shas’ objections to them.

In the past, Rabin has managed to smooth over the problems, but the current crisis appeared to gather sudden and unexpected momentum this week when sources inside the Labor Party began to feel that “this time it’s for real.”

“It’s no mere tactical ploy,” Labor Knesset member Haggai Merom said Thursday.

Merom said the government’s ability to conduct the ongoing peace negotiations with Palestinians and Arabs is more important than what portfolio Aloni holds.

Rabin himself expressed exasperation that a party so dedicated to pushing forward the peace process would jeopardize it by insisting on certain political appointments.

‘THE DIE IS CAST’

The present crisis was triggered when Aloni criticized Rabin for reciting the “Shema Yisrael” prayer at an anniversary commemoration last month for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Aloni criticized the recitation for being fatalistic.

Shas’ insistent demand that Aloni be removed from her post is also a product of pressure exerted on it by rival Orthodox parties.

This was made clear to the prime minister, according to press reports here Thursday, during his lengthy, warm, but low-key conversation with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas’ spiritual leader, at Yosef’s home last Saturday night.

Rabin gave the sage a detailed report on the progress of the peace talks, to which Yosef listened with interest. But his reply was to reach for a piece of paper and read from it a catalogue of Aloni’s recent provocations, culminating with the “Shema Yisrael” episode.

Labor Knesset member Avraham Burg said in a radio interview Thursday that, as far as he could make out, “the die is cast” for Aloni to be reassigned in a Cabinet shuffle.

Burg, chairman of the Knesset Education Committee and a leading supporter of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, said the best solution would be to move Aloni to the Foreign Affairs Ministry and appoint Peres as minister of defense, a portfolio currently held by Rabin himself.

But Burg immediately added that he knew “those who make the decisions,” a reference to Rabin, were not thinking along those lines.

Rabin’s desire to continue holding onto the defense portfolio and not vest this key and powerful post in the hands of his longtime rival Peres has made it difficult to solve the Aloni problem by proposing to move her to a post of equal or higher status.

‘MERETZ, TOO HAS ITS RED LINES’

Meretz politicians, meanwhile, have been making a predictable show of unity and strength, issuing dire warnings that they will not accept any diminution of Aloni’s status.

Dedi Zucker and Ran Cohen, two prominent Meretz Knesset members, vehemently denied media reports that, despite such public protestations of support, Meretz was quietly telling Labor behind the scenes to reassign Aloni.

Environmental Protection Minister Yossi Sarid of Meretz, who is known to have an ambivalent and sometimes stormy relationship with Aloni, also rallied to her side Thursday, urging that Shas recognize that “Meretz, too, has its red lines, beyond which we cannot and will not go.”

Meretz Secretary-General Mordechai Virshubski said it was absurd for “the tzadik of the generation,” a sarcastic reference to Deri, to dictate terms regarding Aloni’s continued tenure.

“He says he can’t sleep at night with her at Education,” Virshubski quoted Deri as saying. “I suppose his lack of sleep affects his performance at his police interrogations the next day.”

Virshubski was referring to the fact that Deri has been under police investigation for more than two years in connection with allegedly improper government funding of Shas religious institutions and suspected personal financial irregularities.

Some political pundits have suggested a link between the crisis and the ongoing police interrogation of Deri.

“Deri knows charges will be filed against him soon — that’s why he wants to shake up the government now,” said one political observer at the mass-circulation newspaper Yediot Achronot.

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