News Analysis: Labor Government Faces ‘midlife’ Crisis As It Nears Second Anniversary in Power

Governments, like people, go through midlife crises. This well-known political phenomenon appears now to be taking its toll on Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor-led government as it approaches the second anniversary of its June 1992 electoral victory.

The phenomenon is taking place despite — or perhaps because of — the government’s successful conclusion of the autonomy agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The polls are showing slippage, and the Labor leadership is grappling with internal frictions that flashed to the surface this week with Rabin’s appointment of Labor Knesset member Ephraim Sneh as the new minister of health.

The main opposition party, the rightist Likud, is hardly enjoying its rival’s difficulties, however: it is beset by internal problems of its own.

The latest of these was a bombshell dropped over the weekend by hardliner Ariel Sharon. The former defense minister announced he would run for prime minister in the next elections. Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, in a quick and angry response, demanded that Sharon be drummed out of the party.

These developments may be more than just the recriminations and bickerings of a government — and an opposition — that have long since passed the honeymoon stage.

Radical changes in the country’s political infrastructure are looming, say pundits here, and their implications can be clearly seen in recent events.

Two key causes underlie the pending changes.

First, electoral reform, which will apply for the first time in the next election.

Under the new election law, voters will vote directly for the prime minister of their choice. In a separate ballot for the Knesset, they will vote for the party of their choice.

This will enable people to split their vote, and it will greatly enhance the power and prestige of the elected prime minister.

Second, the peace agreement with the PLO is making many of the arguments that divided Labor and Likud for more than a generation passe, or at least highly hypothetical.

UPDATED PLATFORMS SOUGHT

Politicians on both sides are casting around for new, updated political platforms.

The first clear sign that things in Israeli politics were no longer as they had been for decades came with the election, early in May, of Labor renegade Haim Ramon as secretary-general of the Histadrut, the trade union confederation.

Ramon, a former Labor Party minister of health and Rabin confidant, broke with his party over health reform and fought against the Labor incumbent, Haim Haberfeld, for the leadership of the powerful but aged — some would say anachronistic — Histadrut.

Ramon won comfortably, and now, even before his formal installation, Rabin, Finance Minister Avraham Shohat, and Haberfeld himself must seek Ramon’s cooperation in fending off looming bankruptcy in the mammoth Kupat Holim Clalit, the Histadrut-owned sick fund that provides health care and health insurance to some two-thirds of the populace.

Ramon’s close friends and dovish political allies inside Labor, led by Knesset members Avrum Burg and Yossi Beilin, bridled this week at the appointment of dove-turned-middle-of-the-roader Sneh to the Cabinet as Ramon’s replacement.

Some Labor insiders depicted the appointment as a blow by Rabin against his perennial rival, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

Sneh is not only a leading member of the Rabin camp; he is a turncoat, having earlier been a key figure in the Peres camp.Peres reportedly demanded that Burg or Beilin be made a minister too — but Rabin, thus far, is stalling.

NEW PARTY MAY FORM

The doves’ fretting has intensified speculation that Ramon, Beilin and company may yet create a new party before the next election, absorbing both Meretz and the dovish wing of Labor.

Meanwhile, on the other wing of Labor, leading centrist figures like Mordechai Gur and Micha Goldman have been meeting, in various forums, with a number of moderate Likud Knesset members and a group of West Bank settlers, to discuss the political situation in the wake of the accord with the PLO.

These politicians are lending their names and voices to the current revival, by a group of academics, of the Allon Plan, under which Israel would retain key strategic areas in the West Bank, as a realistic and practical policy option.

This polarization within the party, coupled with the crisis at Kupat Holim, a six-week strike of the nation’s social workers, the loss of control at the Histadrut, a harsh report by the State Comptroller on maladministration at the Housing Ministry — all come on top of widespread anxiety over the peace process and deepening distrust of the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat.

Together, they seem to be sapping the government’s public support.

Rabin himself, conscious — though perhaps belatedly — of the shifting political tides, mid-week threw himself into ongoing, marathon consultations on the health crisis.

And, in a series of blunt and outspoken public appearances, he has sought to assure the public that the Gaza-Jericho phase of Palestinian autonomy is proceeding better than expected — at least in terms of coordination between the Israel Defense Force and the fledgling Palestinian police force.

On the Likud side, there was little open support for Sharon’s candidacy for the premiership, and much loud criticism.

Even Dan Meridor, a Knesset member and former justice minister not known for his enthusiasm or respect for Netanyahu, asserted that the party had elected its leader democratically — and Netanyahu had therefore earned the right to fight the next election at its head.

But a pregnant silence eddied forth from another disgruntled Likud figure: David Levy, the former foreign minister, who lost a bitter battle to head the party in 1992.

And behind the scenes, many Likudniks, while not endorsing Sharon’s candidacy, nevertheless privately agreed with him that a leadership contest fought in 1992 ought not to determine the party’s prime ministerial candidate in 1996, the latest date for the next election.

Sharon’s candidacy is aimed as much at the right-of-Likud parties and extra-parliamentary groupings as at the Likud rank-and-file itself.

Indeed, it is precisely his hardline appeal that deters the rest of the Likud leadership: They know that the "floating voter," whose wavering between Likud and Labor determines the outcome of elections, will never cast his vote for Sharon.

Such a voter will only consider casting his ballot for a rightist candidate who is a relative moderate with the potential to attract broad mainstream support behind his candidacy.

Sharon’s move, moreover, is seen likely to prompt another non-Likud hardline hopeful, Tsomet’s Rafael Eitan, to throw his hat into the ring too, thus further fragmenting the right.

Sharon’s and Eitan’s supporters argue, though, that this ostensible fragmentation can work to the right’s advantage in the new form of prime ministerial election that will take place.

They claim that while Rabin might well win a straight fight with Netanyahu, a three- or four-cornered contest would be unlikely to produce a clear winner with 51 percent of the ballots.

Thus, according to this argument, Sharon and Eitan would force a second round — in which the rightist candidate, whoever he would be, would have a better chance against Rabin.

Fascinating speculation, but, with his iron-clad blocking bloc of 61 Knesset members, Rabin, though plainly troubled, can still afford to survey the midterm scene with a certain degree of equanimity.

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