The national unity coalition government, held together by the political needs of its main components, may collapse in the weeks or months ahead.
Pundits have been predicting its downfall almost from the day it was formed in 1984. But it has weathered numerous crises brought on by the fierce ideological differences between Labor and Likud. It passed a crucial test last October when Shimon Peres handed over the office of Premier to Yitzhak Shamir. The rotation of power agreement between the two was meticulously observed and implemented with hardly a ripple.
But now some of the most knowledgeable political observers believe the end is near because Shamir wants it so.
They say the 71-year-old Likud leader is convinced it is now opportune to break the uneasy partnership with Labor and go to the electorate for a new mandate. Shamir is said to believe such a move will enhance his personal political fortunes and those of his party. He thinks he has the issue to win an early election and the power to retain the leadership of Likud.
He is aware, these observers say, that his present advantage could disappear if he waits too long for a showdown. The next statutory elections are scheduled for late in 1988 and much could happen by then to weaken his position.
Shamir’s personal and political stock were significantly strengthened at the Herut Party convention on April 1. He was elected without opposition to head the movement. His most serious challenger, Deputy Premier and Housing Minister David Levy, was outmaneuvered and forced to drop any immediate efforts to replace Shamir.
That could change, and, from Shamir’s standpoint, the time lapse between the convention and the next elections must be minimal.
Shamir and his Likud colleagues also believe that the issue of an international conference for Middle East peace is an ideal issue on which to fight an election. A conference poses the possibility of trading territory for peace treaties.
Likud prefers to go to the electorate with a territorial issue rather than submit to an examination of Likud’s domestic economic record during the years when it headed the government.
SHAMIR AND PERES ARE AT ODDS
While Peres continues to press vigorously for an international conference — with specific conditions for Soviet and Palestinian participation — Likud sees a growing body of public opinion in favor of a hardline position on the administered territories and the Palestinians.
In an election campaign, Likud would pillory Peres for allegedly seeking to “sell out” to the Soviets and Palestinians by countenancing their participation in the peace process.
The Palestine Liberation Organization factions which met in Algiers last week played into Likud hands by pronouncing the 1985 accord between PLO chief Yasir Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan null and void; and by attempting to entice the extremist terrorist groups headed by George Habash and Naif Hawatmch to re-align with the PLO with which they broke years ago.
In addition, Israel’s economy is relatively stable at this time, which reduces the need for Likud to defend its past economic record. A Likud Minister, Moshe Nissim, heads the Finance Ministry and he has proven popular with the public. All of this could change drastically by 1988.
Accordingly, Shamir has taken steps to precipitate a new crisis with Labor which this time may well be carried to its logical conclusion — the end of the unity government.
SHAMIR EXCORIATES PERES
In recent weeks, the Premier has launched a bitter and relentless personal attack on Peres who as Vice Premier and Foreign Minister has been actively seeking support abroad for an international peace conference.
When Peres visited Spain two weeks ago for that purpose, among others, Shamir publicly expressed the wish that he would “not succeed.” While Peres was abroad, Shamir denounced the idea as “crazy,” a position that would result in Israel’s isolation and threaten its survival.
“Defeatism” and “lunacy” were the terms he used to describe Peres. While the two men have feuded publicly in the past, neither ever used such extreme language. Coming from the usually taciturn Shamir, they seemed to observers part of a contrived strategy rather than an uncharacteristic loss of temper.
“When Yitzhak Shamir, who is generally polite and reserved, calls Shimon Peres crazy, there are two possible explanations,” Haaretz political correspondent Yoel Markus wrote last week. “Either it was a slip of the tongue or he is deliberately seeking to bring down the unity government and trigger early elections. I have good reason to believe it was the latter…”
The day that article appeared, Shamir and Peres met privately for the first time in more than a month, to discuss their public row over an international conference and the stalemate over the appointment of the next Israeli Ambassador to Washington.
No sooner had the meeting ended when aides of the two leaders proclaimed there was no breakthrough, no rapprochement. Each man remained entrenched in his position. Peres vowed to pursue the conference option and Shamir blasted it anew.
The Ambassadorial appointment remains in limbo while the incumbent envoy, Meir Rosenne, his tour of duty soon to expire, packs his bags.
Labor Ministers rallied around their leader, declaring they would “not permit” Peres’ peace-seeking mission to be sabotaged by Shamir. Likud Cabinet ministers caucused and issued their own statement which echoed Shamir’s ringing denunciation of an international forum.
Israel, at the moment therefore, is pursuing two foreign policies, mutually exclusive. The question remains how long this anomaly can continue before the government breaks down.
Shamir, responding to reporters’ questions last week, would not deny that this was a clear possibility, though he called it the “worst possibility.”
A telephone poll of Labor Ministers by Haaretz elicited the unanimous opinion that Shamir’s remarks showed that the unity government has reached the end of the road because it is no longer possible for Peres and Shamir to work together.
Education Minister Yitzhak Navon, a Laborite, said Shamir’s attacks on Peres created a grave crisis. Nevertheless, associates of Peres insisted that the Foreign Minister does not want to precipitate a crisis. But, they added, he could no long ignore Shamir’s inflammatory language and would soon take “appropriate steps.”
POLITICAL FUTURES ARE ON THE LINE
Unrelated to the personal battle between Peres and Shamir but likely to affect the political futures of both, is the scandal of the Jonathan Pollard spy case. The involvement of Israel’s top political echelons with the American Jew caught spying on the U.S. for Israel and sentenced to life imprisonment is under investigation by two panels.
A government-appointed board of inquiry, consisting of jurist Yehoshua Rotenstreich and former Chief of Staff Zvi Tsur will report directly to the Cabinet when it reaches its conclusions. Simultaneous but completely separate is the probe being conducted by the special intelligence subcommittee of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, under the joint chairmanship of Laborite Abba Eban and Likud’s Eliahu Ben-Elissar. Both panels are operating in camera. When they present their reports, possibly some time in May, both Peres and Shamir could be badly discredited. Both served as Premier during various stages of Pollard’s activities. Both deny any prior knowledge of the affair. Meanwhile, a flood of speculation and rumor swept over the political community last week at the prospect that Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin may be replaced by younger men as a result of the Pollard affair.
There is no shortage of new blood and political ambition in Labor Party ranks. For the moment, future contenders for party leadership remain loyal and diffident. But at the same time they indicate that their time could be approaching.
One candidate, Histadrut Secretary General Yisrael Kessar, summed up the situation when he told reporters recently, “I do not expect a succession struggle at this time. There is no reason for a leadership contest now, so for the present I am doing nothing in that direction.”
Other hopefuls include Minister of Economic Coordination Gad Yaacobi, Energy Minister Moshe Shahal, former Health Minister Mordechai Gur who now heads Solel Boneh, the Histadrut construction company, and Minister-Without-Portfolio Ezer Weizman who recently merged his Yahad Party with Labor.
Weizman told reporters that he considered himself suitable to lead the Labor Party, adding, however, only in the post-Peres era.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.