JERUSALEM (Jun. 20)
Funeral services will be held tomorrow for Deputy Premier Simcha Ehrlich, one of the founders of the Likud coalition and a leader of its Liberal Party wing, who died at Bikur Holim Hospital last night. Ehrlich, 67, was hospitalized June 14 after suffering a stroke. He will be buried at the Nahlat Yitzhak cemetery in Givat Haim.
Premier Menachem Begin eulogized Ehrlich, who was a close friend as well as political associate, at a special memorial session of the Cabinet this morning. He also paid condolences to Ehrlich’s family and to the Liberal Party. The party’s chairman, Energy Minister Yitzhak Modai, said the people and government of Israel have “lost one of their most outstanding and talented leaders.” Another prominent Liberal, Leon Dulzin, called Ehrlich’s death “a hard blow for the Zionist movement and the State of Israel.”
Ehrlich led the Liberal Party for the past 10 years. He reached the peak of his political career when he become Finance Minister in the first Likud government elected in 1977. But his economic reforms failed in the fiercely inflationary climate and he was forced to resign in favor of Yigael Hurwitz. After Likud’s second election victory in 1981, Ehrlich was elevated to the office of Deputy Prime Minister and was also named Minister of Agriculture, the offices he held at the time of his death.
ALIYA IN 1938
Simcha Ehrlich was born in Bychowa, Poland in 1915 and immigrated to Palestine in 1938, working for a time as a farm hand at Ness Ziona. Later he opened the first factory manufacturing optical equipment in the country. He entered politics in 1955 as a member of the Tel Aviv City Council representing the General Zionists, forerunner of the Liberal Party. He pushed hard for the merger of the Liberals with Begin’s Herut faction to form the Gahal Alignment in 1965. Ehrlich was first elected to the Knesset in 1969 and served on its Finance Committee.
In 1973 he was a driving force in the creation of Likud which embraced the centrist Liberals along with Herut and other rightwing factions. Ehrlich was a bespectacled man with a warm smile and ready wit. But he lacked the charisma and oratorical skills needed to propel a politician to the highest office. He exercised his political leadership out of the public eye, utilizing his considerable talents as a negotiator and mediator. He was credited with exerting a moderating influence on Begin. Their warm personal relationship was a key element in maintaining cooperation between the Liberal and Herut blocs which often diverged sharply on political and ideological issues.
Ehrlich was one of the sharpest critics of former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon’s conduct of the war in Lebanon. When the committee of inquiry into the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps massacre, headed by Supreme Court chief justice Yitzhak Kahan, found Sharon and several other ministers and top military brass indirectly responsible, Ehrlich pressed hard for implementation of its recommendations regardless of the embarrassment caused the government. Although Sharon was forced to resign, the bitterness between the two men persisted. Earlier this month, Ehrlich accused Sharon of misleading the Cabinet and provoking Syria into battle in Lebanon. Sharon, now a Minister-Without-Portfolio, angrily denied the charges.
Ehrlich underwent open-heart surgery in the U.S. last January and returned to Israel apparently in good health. It is not known whether the stroke that felled him a week ago was connected to his earlier condition.
LIBERAL LEADERSHIP STRUGGLE EXPECTED
For the Liberal Party, Ehrlich’s death came at the worst possible time. The faction is embroiled in bitter internal conflicts and faces possible defection by a group led by Modai. Political observers agree that Ehrlich’s moderating influence will be sorely missed. They also believe that a divisive struggle for party leadership is unavoidable and could precipitate a coalition crisis leading to early elections.
Meanwhile, political pundits expect Ehrlich’s deputy, Pessah Grupper to succeed him as Agriculture Minister. That would open the way for the appointment of a sixth Liberal minister to the Cabinet, probably Sara Doron whose succession to ministerial rank had been blocked by the Grupper-Modai faction in the party.
WEIZMAN MAY RETURN
A more important question is who Begin will name Deputy Premier in Ehrlich’s place. Dulzin, who is chairman of the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency Executives, has been mentioned for the post. He has not been involved in the intra-party struggles and enjoys the reputation of being “the last of the true Liberals.” But Dulzin is considered by many, especially in Herut, to be too moderate on security and foreign affairs. His relationship with Begin soured when the latter failed to appoint him Foreign Minister, an office he had expected after the 1981 elections.
Political observers doubt therefore that the warring factions within the Liberal Party will turn to Dulzin as a compromise candidate for Deputy Premier. Another, more dramatic possibility, is former Defense Minister Ezer Weizman who resigned several years ago over policy differences with Begin. Weizman, once a Herut leader, has been out of the public eye for some time. Speculation has grown in recent days that he might return to the political scene as a member of the Liberal Party. Ehrlich was reported to have proposed this to Weizman shortly before his death. Weizman has had no comment up to now.