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Israeli leader soars in polls. But Peres unsure whether he can risk elections in hopes of forming government without right wing

By Mary CurtiusSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 1985



Jerusalem

Serving one year as Israel's prime minister has brought Shimon Peres a legitimacy that eluded him during four decades of political life. In a public opinion poll last month, 47.3 percent of those asked said they preferred Mr. Peres as prime minister. His rival, Deputy Premier Yitzhak Shamir, was preferred by only 6.6 percent.

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Even some of his political enemies speak highly of Peres's performance.

``Shimon Peres is a noble man,'' says Ehud Olmert, an opposition member of parliament. ``His advantages are that he's a good manager. He is a patient man and a workaholic.''

Only a year ago, Peres was depicted as a loser who had led the Labor Party, once the dominant power in Israeli politics, to three defeats in national elections.

But during his first year of office, Peres has emerged as the conciliator in a bitterly divided Cabinet. He won important votes on withdrawing Israeli troops from south Lebanon, imposing a Draconian austerity program, and even managed to make some cuts in Israel's bloated budget.

The hottest political debate in Israel now is whether Peres will be able to parlay his remarkable political rehabilitation into a new lease on life for Labor during his remaining year in office.

Labor Party officials view the coming months in almost apocalyptic terms for the future of their party and, some insist, for Israel itself. The same poll that ranks Peres so high also revealed that extremist views on both the left and right are gaining strength at the expense of the two large parties.

Some Labor stalwarts see the role of their party and Peres as crucial to turning Israel away from the ultra-nationalistic policies espoused by Likud hardliners and more right-wing parties and back toward a policy of compromise with Israel's Arab neighbors.

This view is shared by some United States officials in the Middle East and in Washington. The Reagan administration has watched anxiously from the sidelines as Peres has painfully manuevered around the Likud to offer some encouragement to Jordan's peace efforts.

Some US officials say privately that they hope Peres's successes will build enough public support to lead into negotiations on the fate of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

``The United States stays neutral in issues of Israeli internal politics of course,'' one official said in Washington recently. ``But the views of the Likud and Labor on the need for territorial compromise are well known, as are the views of the United States.'' Both the Labor Party and the US have espoused a policy of Israel trading land for peace with neighboring Jordan. The Likud adamantly maintains that the West Bank is an integral part of Biblical Israel that cannot be negotiated away.

Several US officials confirm privately that one reason the Reagan administration has delayed meeting with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to talk about peace prospects is fear that the meeting will hurt Peres.

The Palestinian half of any such joint delegation would be approved by the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Israel regards as a terrorist group. Should a meeting between the US and a joint delegation take place and not lead to a change in the PLO's stance, Israeli officials say, Peres would be blamed for ``allowing'' the US to meet with the PLO.

``It would damage Peres for sure. . .,'' says parliament member Olmert. ``Everyone in Israel will know that all of the soft words, appeasements, and invitations Peres offered led only to the United States recognizing the PLO.''

The crucial decision facing Peres in the next few months, then, is whether he will stick to an agreement to hand over the premiership to the rival Likud bloc on Oct. 14, 1986, or risk bringing down the government in hopes of forming a new government without Likud.

Only with Likud out of the government, Peres's aides say, can the peace treaty with Egypt be revitalized and progress be made on talks with Jordan's King Hussein. The Israeli political setup leaves Peres three options:

He can resign as prime minister and attempt to form a new coalition government including Labor, parties to the left of Labor, and some ultra-orthodox religious parties. At best, such a move would give him a thin majority in the 120-seat parliament, and the Labor Party would be forced to make a slew of compromises to the religious parties that would alienate the vast majority of secular Labor voters.

If Peres cannot form a narrow majority government, he could resort to early elections. The last elections resulted in a stalemate that few political analysts say would be broken if new elections were held in the next few months.

``What Peres needs is a dramatic issue that would change the Israeli political scene and sweep voters off their feet. Hussein and [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak haven't given him that,'' says one analyst.

He can hold together the government and hand over the premiership to Yitzhak Shamir in one year. That option, some analysts insist, is the only one open to Peres now. Under this, Peres would become foreign minister for two years while his arch rival in Labor, Yitzhak Rabin, would retain the more powerful post of defense minister.

``All his life, Peres has been accused of never keeping his commitments. He wants to show that he can keep this one,'' Olmert says, ``There is nothing that Peres can bring to the public right now that proves he's got a cause,'' to breach the agreement he signed with Shamir.

Peres insists publicly that he is committed to the rotation agreement -- unless Likud forces the issue by putting intolerable strains on the government. He warned Shamir recently that attacks on the government and on Peres by Likud Cabinet ministers could lead to the government's dissolution. And although the prime minister says he wants the government to survive, he has openly courted the small religious parties that, until 1977, were always part of Labor governments.