Israeli Labor Leader Seeks Wide Coalition In New Government

ISRAELI President Chaim Herzog yesterday gave Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin 21 days in which to form a government, after his victory in general elections last week.

Emerging from his meeting with the president, Mr. Rabin said he hoped to have a coalition Cabinet ready to present to the Knesset (parliament) when it opens its new session July 13.

Theoretically, Rabin could form a government immediately by including the left-wing Meretz party and counting on tacit support from two Arab parties outside the Cabinet. But the prime minister designate said Thursday he was seeking a broader coalition.

"The Labor Party ... represents the mainstream of the thinking of the people of Israel," he told reporters, "and I would like to have a government with one party to the left and other parties to the right."

This approach recalls the tactical coalition-building tradition the Labor Party developed during its heyday under David Ben Gurion in the 1950s and 1960s. It also offers the prospect of greater stability, points out Hebrew University political scientist Peter Medding. "If he gets enough parties in [the Cabinet], he is free of blackmail from the smaller parties, because no one of them could bring the government down by resigning," Professor Medding explains.

Unexpectedly, the prime candidate alongside Meretz for inclusion in the government is the extreme right-wing party Tsomet, which jumped from two to eight seats in the recent elections.

In a bid to set out coalition guidelines acceptable to both Meretz (some of whose leaders support a Palestinian state) and Tsomet (which is opposed to conceding an inch of the occupied territories), Labor this week issued a very vague outline of its intentions.

The effort did not succeed. Meretz and Tsomet both rejected the guidelines, saying they would not join the government unless Labor made more specific commitments to their own platforms.

Meanwhile, Rabin has appointed teams to negotiate coalition agreements not only with Meretz and Tsomet, but also with the National Religious Party (NRP), which has sat in every government since the state of Israel was founded in 1948, and with the ultra-orthodox parties.

The NRP seems unlikely to join the government, since it has said it will not sit with Meretz, and Labor's Knesset faction leader Haim Ramon said on Wednesday night it was "inconceivable" that Meretz would be left out of the Cabinet.

The ultra-orthodox parties, however, are anxious to join the coalition, to ensure state funding for their educational systems and to try to defend religious interests against the militantly secular Meretz and Tsomet.

Though each party will be posturing and playing hard-to-get while keeping a poker face, Rabin's task is eased by the fact that he does not depend entirely on any one of them, and could choose any of a number of permutations to form a new governing coalition.

He is not expected to need the 21-day extension that the law allows if no coalition agreement is negotiated within the next three weeks.

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