Crisis on Hold, Rabin Tries To Save Israeli Coalition

But Cabinet rift persists, casting shadow on peace talks with Arabs

DEFUSING a Cabinet crisis for a week, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has time to ponder the fragility of his coalition government.

But as he seeks to resolve the tussle between his two partners, the ultra-orthodox Shas Party, and the vigorously secular Meretz alliance, his options are limited. His only consolation is that both parties seem equally eager to help defuse the crisis.

"Everyone understands that this is the best government to advance the peace process, so everyone is making the maximum effort" to keep it alive, says Health Minister Haim Ramon.

Mr. Rabin appears determined not to allow his peace talks with neighboring Arab states to become hostage to the Cabinet crisis, even if Shas withdraws from the government, as it has threatened to do. That would reduce Rabin's Knesset (parliament) majority to two.

But Mr. Ramon argued Wednesday that "in a democracy, the difference between 51 percent and 49 percent is 100 percent. We can continue with our policies, and especially with the peace process," even with a reduced majority.

The Cabinet crisis shifted down a gear on Tuesday evening, when Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, the Shas leader, withdrew the resignation that he had offered two days earlier because his archrival Shulamit Aloni, the Meretz education minister, had not been fired for making allegedly antireligious statements.

Instead Rabbi Deri and Ms. Aloni agreed to hand their portfolios over to Rabin for a week while he tries to engineer a ministerial reshuffle that will placate Shas and satisfy Meretz.

By giving Rabin another week to resolve the dispute, both Aloni and Deri pulled back from the brink of a full-scale government crisis that neither seems to want. "Shas has to stay in the government, or it loses all the sources of funding that finance its social institutions," says Ilan Greilshammer, an expert on the ultra-orthodox community. "And Meretz wants peace; it has nowhere else to go."

Rabin knows that, with 61 of the 120 Knesset members behind him even without Shas' six votes, he has a "blocking majority" that would prevent anyone except him from forming a government. "No one can move this government, and no one else can form one," points out Yael Dayan, a Labor Party member of the Knesset.

But that majority is dependent on the five Israeli Arab Knesset members, which makes Rabin uncomfortable about taking major initiatives on the peace front. Making no secret of their support for the Palestinian cause, the Arab parties are not ideal partners "at a special time like this, when we are deciding Israel's borders, and when Rabin has a problem convincing the Israeli public to trust him," says Daniel Ben Simon, a political commentator for the newspaper Davar.

For this reason, Rabin "will do everything he can both to maintain the current government and to explore the possibility of adding other parties to the coalition," says Shimon Sheves, director of the prime minister's office.

That will not be easy. Potential allies among the other ultra-orthodox parties have said they will not sit in a Cabinet with Meretz, while the right-wing Tsomet Party, to which Rabin made overtures when he formed his government last July, has said it could not support Rabin's approach to the peace talks.

Shas is demanding not only that Aloni leave the Education Ministry, but also that no Meretz member replace her. In that case, Aloni says, she will be satisfied only with the Foreign Ministry, or Deri's own Interior Ministry.

Should no deal prove possible, Rabin has promised Aloni a new job as culture and communications minister, while Meretz colleague Amnon Rubinstein would take over at Education.

Deri has already said he would not accept such a scheme, and would resign.

Political observers here are hard pressed to explain why Deri chose to provoke this Cabinet crisis by criticizing Aloni for making an allegedly antireligious statement at the recent Holocaust memorial celebrations in Warsaw.

But Shas leaders have been complaining recently that they are finding it increasingly hard to explain to their largely right-wing and extremely religious constituency what they are doing in a Cabinet with the outspokenly secular Aloni, and in a government making concessions to the Arabs in the peace talks.

"They needed a crisis to regain legitimacy in the ultraorthodox street," says Mr. Ben Simon, and ousting Aloni from her Education post has helped them.

"Meretz and Shas are always on an inevitable collision course," Dr. Greilshammer argues. "Shas gives Labor and Meretz a free hand on the policy front, so long as they don't make provocative statements about religion. But Meretz has to express itself, to satisfy its own constituency that it is not happy about Shas' funding.

"They'll both stay in the government, and there will be regular and periodic crises," Greilshammer predicts. "That's the game."

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