Peres-Rabin rift in Israel's Labor Party raises doubt about June election outcome

"It's too early to call," said Eliezer Zhurabin, Israel's ace political publicity agent, of the hard-fought election campaign raging here. It was like the ancient parable of the gentile who asked patient Rabbi Hillel to teach him the Torah while he stood on one foot. The rabbi simply cited its moral essence and said all the rest is mere "commentary."

So with Mr. Zhurabin. He would not hazard a guess about the number of Knesset (parliament) seats opposition leader Shimon Peres, until now the front-runner, was likely to get June 30 when Israelis go to the polls.

Nor would he predict how deep the parliamentary inroads made by third-party candidate Moshe Dayan are likely to be. Zhurabin, whose public relations firm helped the Likud Party win Israel's election four years ago, preferred to reserve judgment for the time being.

Three months ago it would have been a different story. Labor Party chairman Peres was way ahead, with pollsters predicting a clear majority of at least 61 seats for him in the Knesset.

But a lot has changed since then. The initial Peres choice for the crucial Finance Ministry, Yaacov Levinson of the powerful Bank Hapoalim, posed impossible conditions for a politician aiming at a landslide electoral victory to meet.

The uncertainty of Mr. Levinson's participation in a projected Labor government in which rescue of Israel's inflation-racked economy would have top priority made Mr. Peres seem indecisive and inconsistent.

Entry of Yoram Aridor as the Likud coalition's finance minister and the subsequent end of a ban on color television broadcasts as a prelude to drastic tax cuts on color TV sets automatically improved the government's sagging popularity.

Ex-Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan's predictable decision to run at the head of a newly organized Movement for State Renewal, coupled with ex-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's rejection of the Peres shadow cabinet brought the Peres standing to its lowest ebb since the curtain rose on Israel's 1981 election campaign.

Conservative estimates give Dayan 10 Knesset seats, meaning that at least six or seven would have to be deducted from Labor's original peak potential of 61.

The Rabin challenge is undoubtedly the most damaging of all to Peres personally and to Labor as a whole. It stems from deep resentment and bitterness over the circumstances in which a then-illegal foreign currency account in a Washington bank caused Mr. Rabin's resignation and a symbolic court fine on his wife.

For his part, Peres decided to announce a shadow cabinet that excluded Rabin.

The most sensational appointments were those of Tel Aviv University president Haim Ben-Shahar, a brilliant economic theoretician, as shadow finance minister and of the Histadrut labor federation's Naftali Blumenthal, head of the Koor worker-owned industrial conglomerate, as deputy finance minister.

Rabin promptly declared these appointments illegal and questioned their wisdom as to timing and scope.

The spectacle of Labor's two most popular figures, Peres and Rabin, unable to coexist within their own party is not enhancing its vote-getting potential. Pundits now give Peres only 45 Knesset seats to Likud's 32 and Dayan's 10.

This could put Dayan in the position of swinging his faction to either side, thereby determining which of the two big parties can head the next government.

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