With Weeklong Reprieve in Crisis, Rabin Aims at Expanding Coalition

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin managed to stave off yet another looming coalition collapse in the nick of time this week, and immediately began negotiations with other political parties in an effort to broaden the base of his parliamentary support.

Trying to settle a bitter feud between his two coalition partners, the secularist Meretz bloc and the Orthodox Shas party, Rabin won agreement Tuesday from the top minister of each party to temporarily “deposit” their respective portfolios in Rabin’s hands for one week until a more permanent solution could be worked out.

The deal was struck just minutes before the Shas party chairman, Interior Minister Arye Deri, was to have resigned and pulled the party’s six-seat Knesset delegation out of the Labor-led government.

Deri had announced his resignation Sunday, but gave Rabin 48 hours to remove Meretz leader Shulamit Aloni as education minister.

Under the deal worked out Tuesday, both Deri and Aloni will become ministers without portfolio until a compromise agreement is reached.

Meanwhile, Rabin is trying to use the coalition crisis to his benefit, by taking the opportunity to see if he can add any other parties to the government and thereby make the coalition less vulnerable to such crises in the future.

Just after securing the one-week breather, Rabin proceeded to call in Avraham Shapira, leader of the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism Front, and asked him to begin negotiations with Labor with a view toward joining the coalition.

Similar efforts are expected to be made with the National Religious Party and with Rafael Eitan’s Tsomet party. Labor is prepared to promise these two right-of-center parties that any territorial concessions in peace talks with the Arabs will be made only if sanctioned in advance by new elections or a national referendum.

Rabin could then presumably offer the education post to NRP’s Zevulun Hammer or to Eitan. Both men have said they see themselves as suited for the job. Hammer held it for years under the Likud-led coalitions of the 1980s.

BEST HOPE IS WITH UNITED TORAH

But political observers believe the best prospects of enlarging the coalition lie with United Torah, especially since Aloni, as a result of the past week’s crisis, has apparently been reconciled in principle to forfeiting the sensitive Education Ministry.

United Torah has said in the past that it could not join the government if Aloni were education minister.

It has been Aloni’s controversial comments, seen in Orthodox circles as disparaging, that have triggered several coalition crises with Shas, including the present one.

Sparking this latest crisis was a comment by Aloni criticizing Rabin’s recitation of the Shema Yisrael prayer at a commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising last month. Aloni, dismaying even many of her supporters, said Rabin’s use of the prayer was fatalistic.

Shas’ Council of Torah Sages, led by former Israeli Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, demanded that Rabin make good on an earlier written pledge to remove Aloni from the education post if her controversial statements continued.

Deri’s announcement Sunday that he planned to resign put Rabin on notice that this time, Shas meant business.

One compromise proposal to remove Aloni from overseeing the Education Ministry but have her retain control over the sub-portfolio of culture was also rejected by Shas.

Under that proposal, Aloni would have retained control over the two state-run television networks.

Another Meretz minister, Amnon Rubinstein, was to have taken over the shrunken Education Ministry.

But Yosef and the other Shas sages vetoed this — on the grounds that it still left Aloni with unacceptable powers over the country’s culture and media.

Shas said it wants a Labor Party minister at the Education and Culture Ministry. It proposed compensating Aloni with another senior — but non-controversial — portfolio.

COULD GOVERN WITHOUT SHAS

But Meretz, with twice as many Knesset seats as Shas, balked predictably at the order dictated by the smaller party.

Nevertheless, under intense pressure from the prime minister, the Meretz leadership agreed Tuesday evening to the one-week “timeout” — with the clear understanding that if no acceptable solution is found during that time, Rabin will allow Deri’s resignation to go forward.

In such a case, Rabin would have to govern with a 56-seat plurality in the Knesset, supplemented with the tacit support of the five Knesset members from Arab parties. This would yield a combined parliamentary majority of 61 seats against the opposition’s 59.

The thinness of that margin would plainly not be the premier’s preferred political position, especially given the context of hard decisions that may soon be needed in the peace talks.

Rabin, however, declared Tuesday night that he was anxious to demonstrate “to any potential coalition partner” that he is both determined and capable of continuing to govern even if Shas drops out.

At the end of the day, the premier stressed that “no government is possible other than a Labor-led government — given our ‘blocking bloc’ in the Knesset.”

As if to drive home this point, Rabin held a cordial meeting at his office in the Knesset with the five Arab Knesset members, whose support would be needed for this “blocking bloc” to hold.

The days ahead, according to political observers, will witness a new round of intensive coalition negotiations, with Labor anxious to broaden the base of its government.

Labor’s hope is that the Shas-Meretz clash, by precipitating Aloni’s removal from the Education Ministry, has opened the way for adding other parties to the coalition.

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