Israel's Rabin Leaves Door Ajar For Ultra-Orthodox in Cabinet

ISRAELI Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin presented his new government to the Knesset (parliament) yesterday, and seemed certain to win a late-night vote of confidence despite last-minute hitches in his bid to fashion a broad ruling coalition.

Mr. Rabin built his Labor-led administration with the left-wing Meretz party and Shas, an ultra-orthodox religious party, to give him a majority of 62 in the 120-member Knesset. He can also count on support from five Arab Knesset members not included in the government.

By presenting his Cabinet to the opening session of the Knesset, as he had promised, the Labor leader displayed his determination to seize the reins of power, rather than spend more time negotiating with other potential coalition partners.

"Rabin is keen to go ahead with his trips to Washington and elsewhere, and not to waste more time," says Danny Ben Simon, political commentator for the Labor daily Davar.

Assured of a Knesset majority, however slim, the new prime minister thus decided to form his Cabinet in record time and resume contacts with expected coalition members Tsomet, an extreme right-wing party, and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), another ultra-orthodox group, only later.

Labor officials say they are confident that both parties will soon drop their current objections to the government's policies and composition, and join.

Rabin has left three Cabinet posts unfilled in an indication that he expects Tsomet and UTJ leaders to fill them at a later date.

Rabin had repeatedly stressed over the past three weeks of coalition negotiations that he wanted both left-wing and right-wing partners in his government to provide balance.

Tsomet's presence would help Rabin in the battles he is likely to have to fight over the Middle East peace process with Meretz and his own predominantly doveish Labor Party.

As things stand, points out Labor Knesset member Avraham Burg, Rabin "is the most right-wing member of his own government."

His anxiety to get out of that uncomfortable position suggests that even though the government has a distinctly more leftist tinge than its leader had intended, he is unlikely to change his essentially security-minded approach to the Palestinians and their demands for self determination in the occupied territories.

"Rabin is a very consistent figure, and when he has an agenda in his mind, it takes a lot to move him," says Mr. Burg, one of the most prominent Labor Party doves.

The Labor leader was clearly disappointed when Tsomet chief Rafael Eitan backed out of negotiations over the weekend, after two weeks of talks which seemed to have been going well.

Mr. Eitan said he saw no chance of harmonizing his party's views on Palestinian autonomy, and on the need to control all the occupied territories, with Rabin's approach.

But Labor Party officials say the real reason for his sudden change of tack was Rabin's decision to make Meretz leader Shulamit Aloni the education minister, a post Eitan had openly coveted.

Although Tsomet spokeswoman Anat Shor said yesterday that she saw "no chance of our joining this government the way it is talking," some coalition members are less sure that Tsomet will stand by its position.

"We are still worried that there will be more compromises with Tsomet," said incoming Immigrant Absorption Minister Yair Tsaban, a Meretz leader, yesterday. "I just hope that Rabin won't make too many efforts to bring them in."

Ms. Aloni's appointment as education minister also prompted the UTJ to decide against joining the Cabinet, after the most authoritative ultra-orthodox rabbi, Eliezer Schach, ruled that ultra-orthodox parties should not sit in a government with such an avowedly secular minister.

But with the ministries of Police, Religious Affairs, and Labor left open, Rabin has kept some bait with which to tempt both Eitan and the UTJ into his government.

Within his own party, Rabin has given his arch rival, Shimon Peres, the post of foreign minister that Mr. Peres had wanted, but at the same time trimmed his authority.

The prime minister will be in overall control of bilateral peace negotiations with the Palestinians, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, in cooperation with the foreign minister, while Peres will lead the multilateral regional talks in cooperation with Rabin.

Rabin spelled out his approach to the peace talks on Sunday, saying he would give "first priority ... to finding a solution between Israel and the Palestinians in the territories," although he added that "we will continue our contacts to explore to what extent it will be possible to move ahead with Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan."

Rabin will hold the crucial Defense portfolio himself, he explained, at least for the first year of his government, "for the purpose of coordination between what's going on in the territories and the peace process."

The interior minister's job remains in the hands of Aryeh Deri, the Shas leader who is the only member of outgoing Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's Cabinet to join the new government.

Mr. Deri has pledged to suspend himself, however, if a police investigation currently under way into corruption allegations against him leads to an indictment.

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