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Yitzhak Rabin's Juggling Act

Wheeling and dealing convolute Israel's politics, but somehow it manages to get the job done

By John Battersby / April 27, 1995



JERUSALEM

ISRAEL'S unique brand of coalition politics involves a seemingly endless round of horse-trading, dealmaking, and compromising.

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''I don't think there is anything quite like it in the world,'' says a Western diplomat who tracks Israel's domestic politics daily.

''On the one hand, it is an impressive display of democracy. On the other, it is a mingling of indiscipline and near-chaos that makes political consistency and leadership almost impossible,'' he says.

Rarely a month goes by without Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin distancing himself from one of his minister's statements, clashing with members of his coalition, or threatening to discipline party factions for trying to vote with the opposition.

It has become a tradition for ministers to line up after the Sunday Cabinet meetings and make policy pronouncements that have nothing to do with their portfolios.

Ministers from smaller coalition partners make promises they can't keep, Cabinet disputes are acted out in public, and splinter factions hold the fragile Labor Party coalition ransom with demands ranging from a ban on importing non-Kosher meat to the future of the Golan Heights -- a strategic plateau in Syria occupied by Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

''It's a miracle that anything gets done,'' says Susan Hatis Rolef, author of Israel's premier political dictionary.

Ms. Rolef concedes there is a lack of discipline, but adds that somehow the system keeps going. ''The credibility of some politicians is in the dumps, and there is little discipline, but it's been like that for some time,'' she says, adding that repeated attempts to change the system have failed.

Rabin's Labor Party coalition rules with only 58 of the Knesset's 120 seats. These include the 12 seats of the left-wing Meretz Party and two of the three seats of the Yiud Party, a breakaway from the right-wing Tzomet Party.

The right-wing Likud Party has 32 seats, which swell to 52 seats when legislators from five right-wing parties are included.

The Labor Coalition's 58 seats fall short of the 63 seats needed for a ''blocking majority,'' which prevents the Knesset voting the government out of power.

Rabin has to rely on three Communist Party legislators and two Arab Democratic Party legislators, who support the government, to be assured of a Knesset majority.

Under the present system, the ruling Labor Party has little option but to woo back those who have defied party discipline. These include: Histadrut (trade union federation) leader Haim Ramon; the former Labor chief whip who led a rebellion over the length of the school day, Eli Dayan; and Avigdor Kahalani's Third Way, which is threatening to vote with the Likud opposition to prevent returning the Golan Heights to Syria.

To ensure that he is not stymied by rebellions from within his own ranks, the secular Rabin has to rely on Shas, an ultrareligious but non-Zionist party made up of Sephardic Jews who want Israel to be transformed from a secular into a religious state.

Aryeh Deri, the former Interior Minister and leader of Shas, is currently on trial for fraud. Such is the influence of Shas government that when the party insisted recently that the two Cabinet posts it is entitled to be held open pending the outcome of Mr. Deri's trial, Rabin agreed and made two recent Cabinet appointments to senior posts provisional.

Incredibly, on the various occasions when a bloc vote by Shas could have caused Rabin's government to fall, five of the party's six legislators have abstained from voting -- in the hopes of winning further concessions from Rabin. ''This gives all sorts of small fry opportunities to make trouble,'' Rolef says.

This leaves Rabin with limited options in trying to forge ahead with his electoral promises: progress with the Israel-Palestinian peace accord, peace talks with Syria, a privatized economy, and a modernized infrastructure for the country.