There was initially some hand-wringing within the Reagan administration and certain quarters of the American Jewish community last week when Premier Yitzhak Shamir emerged from last Tuesday’s elections in Israel as the likely head of the next government, with the support of the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties.
Administration officials privately expressed concern that this would derail the Middle East peace process. American Jews worried about being alienated from Israel, fearing Shamir would give in to the demands of the religious parties for the adoption of the “Who Is A Jew” amendment, which would not recognize conversions by Reform and Conservative rabbis.
But a consensus now appears to be emerging that Shamir will not depart radically from Israel’s stance on the peace process, although the idea of an international conference is dead for now.
Nor is Shamir expected to give in to all the demands of the religious parties. He does not want a major rift with American Jewry, nor does he want to alienate the secular majority of the Israeli public by further restrictions on such Shabbat activities as soccer games.
Shamir went out of his way to try to allay these concerns in an interview published Friday in the Washington Post. That this was a special effort is seen in that he took time for the interview out of his busy schedule of negotiations with the small parties he is seeking to include in his coalition.
‘MANDATE’ FOR PEACE
“We will be the main factor in this coalition and we have made it clear to all potential partners that we are committed to the Camp David accords, and we will not change our position in this regard,” Shamir said.
Denying that the elections were “a setback to peace,” Shamir stressed that “we have a mandate from our people to get peace and we consider this mandate very seriously.”
Shamir also said Likud would continue to allow its members to vote their conscience on religious legislation, rather than making advance commitments enforced by party discipline.
“We know the moods and the worries of the Jewish community in the United States, and we don’t think now to change in this regard the existing status quo,” he told the Post.
At a seminar on the Israeli elections Friday at the Brookings Institution, Professor Bernard Reich noted that similar dire predictions of rifts with the U.S. government and the Jewish community were made when Likud first gained power in 1977.
Reich, who is chairman of the political science department at George Washington University, said it was that Likud government, led by Premier Menachem Begin, that negotiated the peace treaty with Egypt.
He predicted that the new government would be no radical departure from traditional Israeli policy.
“The paralysis of the national unity government has been broken,” Reich said. He said a new government under Shamir may make decisions “we may not like, but at least we will see clear-cut decisions.”
But Wolf Blitzer, Washington bureau chief of the Jerusalem Post, cast doubt on whether Shamir would head a narrow-majority government.
He flatly predicted that in the end, Shamir would enter into another national unity government with the Labor Party. But he said it would be one in which there would be no rotation of the premiership with Labor leader Shimon Peres.
A ‘BLOOD BATH’ IN LABOR
Blitzer said his rationale was that the major success of the national unity government has been in the economy, where inflation has been reduced dramatically, and this would be threatened with Labor and the Histadrut, dominated by Labor, in opposition.
He added that to prevent breaks with the U.S. government and American Jewry, Shamir does not want to have to depend on the extremist parties.
However, Samuel Lewis, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said that while another national unity government is possible, he believes Labor will prefer to sit it out in opposition.
He predicted a “blood bath” within Labor over the leadership of Peres, who has failed to achieve a victory for his party in the last four elections.
Blitzer predicted that no matter whether who is elected U.S. president, there will be a major disagreement between Israel and the United States in 1989. He said this has been true for the first year of every president’s term since the 1970s.
Lewis suggested that if Shamir becomes prime minister, his Cabinet choices may decide whether major problems between the two countries are contained. “The sensitivity of leaders is important to containing damage,” he said.
Lewis noted that President Reagan, Secretary of State George Shultz, Shamir, Peres and Moshe Arens, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, have shown this sensitivity. However, he said, some members of Likud and the right-wing parties “love to throw gasoline on the fires of U.S.-Israeli relations.”
The former ambassador predicted that a new Shamir government would keep the Likud promises of building new settlements in the West Bank and imposing a harsher crackdown on the Arab uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. “The impact in the United States will be quite unsettling,” he said.
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.