Israel's political pot bubbles afresh

Elated by recent opinion polls, Israel's political opposition parties are stepping up efforts to oust Prime Minister Menachem Begin. But success (still unlikely) seems to promise a new government of old faces, old feuds, and old ideas.

This widely held perception helps explain why whispers of an early national election, which suddenly were heard in early March, seem to have abated almost as suddenly.

Israel, meanwhile, seems in the grip of an energy crisis that has nothing to do with oil. Increasingly isolated abroad, bitterly divided at home, reeling from inflation, aching to believe in a peace with Egypt that still cannot really be felt, the country seems unexcited by any of its prospective leaders.

"We are a nation in shock," laments one veteran Labor Party politician. "We yearn for the kind of unity and purpose that guided us in the early years. But there's no sense of hope, no new leader of new inspiration on the horizon, and no real faith that Labor can provides this."

Among other reasons for israel's current restiveness suggested by politicians and analysts here:

President Carter's announcement of April summit meetings with Egypt's President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Begin. This reminded Mr. Begin's fractious conservative coalition that the fall of a government is the last thing Israel needs during delicate Middle East negotiations.

The prediction by one of the only pollsters to forsee Mr. Begin's surprise electoral triumph in 1977 that if fresh voting were held now, the opposition Labor Party Alignment would win so resoundingly it could form the first noncoalition Cabinet in Israeli history.

To force an election before the scheduled 1981 date, the Labor Party must pry loose a half-dozen parliamentarians from the Begin government's smaller coalition parties. They are not likely to bolt if they suspect Labor will be able to rule alone.

But Mr. Begin's greatest long-term insurance may be that Labor, which ran Israel for its first three decades, has not visibly changed in 34 months away from power.

Pundits and pollsters, who make a living by disagreeing, agree that the party's major eletoral drawing card is simply that the Labor Alignment is not the Begin government.

Some Western diplomats suspect that in one crucial area -- the future of Palestinians on the Israeli-occupied West Bank -- even "old" policies might offer new light. Mr. Begin is intent on permanent Israeli control of the area, sanctioning Israeli settlements as if to prove the point.

By contrast, Labor always has shied away from settling the more populated West Bank sectors, and favors returning part of the territory to Jordan in the context of a final peace.

But this depends on Jordan. King Hussein rejected this idea before Mr. Begin came to power. And since then the Jordanian monarch -- angered by the Camp David accords and the separate Egyptian-Israeli treaty -- has been mending fences with the Palestine Liberation Organization, while insisting that the entire West Bank be returned.

And though a Labor government in Israel would almost certainly move to curb -- if not end -- further Jewish settlement, it could prove much more vulnerable than the conservative Mr. Begin to ultranationalist Jewish factions at home.

On the economic front, a Begin government advocating a free marketplace has instead ushered in a free-for-all -- with prices now rocketing upward at an annual rate of about 120 percent.

Labor would seem to offer a re-emphasis on the state economy it helped build -- and on state susides, a formula likely to ease the hurt of rising prices without necessarily easing the price rises.

Labor offers only "the old slogans," one Israeli newspaper suggested earlier in March.

The Labor Party leader and virtually certain candidate for the premiership is Shimon Peres -- a longtime protege of Israel's first prime minister, the late David Ben-Gurion -- who has been seeking the top post for years.

Mr. Peres is perhaps best known to younger voters for his running feud with former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin -- who was forced to cede to Mr. Peres three years ago when Mrs. Rabin was found to have held an illegal bank account abroad.

Even as Labor sought to unseat Mr. Begin, the sudden demise of former Foreign Minister Yigal Allon sparked talk in political circles of a fresh challenge by Mr. Rabin for party leadership.

"People saw this as proof that Labor may be just as disorganized and destructive as the Begin government," says a longtime Labor supporter.

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