Israeli coalition building -- when tiny religious parties get very strong

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin appears poised to form Israel's next government -- by July 21 according to his expectations. His Likud coalition would join with a bloc of three religious parties to achieve a razor-thin 61 -seat margin in the 120-seat Knesset (parliament).

This raises questions about the prospective new government's strength in handling pressing foreign policy and economic issues. It also holds out the prospect of a tough, hawkish Israeli position upon renewal of talks with Egypt about autonomy for the Palestinians of the occupied West Bank and Gaza which have been delayed for several months pending the outcome of the Israeli election.

Despite talks in both Mr. Begin's party and the opposition Labor Alignment about early elections, Mr. Begin insists that he can govern for a full 4 1/2 -year term. The final election tally -- not published officially until July 10 -- gives him a 48-47 seat edge over Labor. Labor initially appeared ahead with 49-48. This virtally rules out the possibility of a Labor government.

Mr. Begin is now conducting coalition negotiations with three religious parties, all part of his current government and his only likely partners in the next one. They are:

1. National Religious Party (NRP): with six seats, has become increasingly hawkish with a strong interest in retention of and increased Jewish settlement on the occupied West Bank. It would prefer a short-lived government of national unity including both Likud and Labor while it builds up its deleted election strength, down six seats from the previous balloting. But Labor has rejected this option, so the NRP will almost certainly join with the Likud.

2. Agudat Israel: an ultra-Orthodox group with four seats, is interested mainly in domestic religious legislation on subjects like restriction of Sabbath work and prohibition of abortions and autopsies, as well as military service for religious women. It has almost certainly agreed to join with Mr. Begin.

3. Tami: with three seats, broke away from the NRP when its leader, Religious Minister Aharon Abuhastseira felt NRP leaders had given insufficient backing to his fight against corruption charges and to the Jewish community of North African origins which he represents.

Mr. Begin must patch up the feud between Abuhatseira and NRP leaders in order to arrive at his 61-seat majority, a feat which looks feasible but is not yet absolutely guaranteed.

Neither Moshe Dayan's Telem Party (two seats) nor the right-wing Likud breakaway, Tehyia (three seats), which called for aggregation of Israel's treaty pledge to withdraw from Sinai, are likely to join a Likud-led government.

One danger of such a slim majority is the need for all Cabinet ministers and coalition members to be ever ready for a key vote. One boost to Mr. Begin may be mooted passage of a law to enable ministers to resign from the Knesset, thus freeing them from Knesset roll calls.

The prospective government's survival will depend to a large extent on two factors: the state of Mr. Begin's health and spirits which shifted dramatically during recent months; and the homogeneity of outlook of the coalition.

Mr. Begin told an American TV interviewer that the new Likud-led government would be more like-minded than the last and threfore more durable. It will lack strong- minded ministers like Moshe Dayan and former Defense Minister Ezer Weizmann who were more dovish than Mr. Begin. And it will not depend on the good graces of the now defunct but once pivotal Democratic Movement for Change.

In foreign policy, Mr. Begin would have nearly uniform coalition backing for a tough stand on issues like autonomy negotiation and the still-unresolved crisis over Syrian anti- aircraft missiles in Lebanon.

The apparent failure of coalition negotiations with the pragmatic former Foreign Minister Dayan, who resigned in October 1979 over conduct of the autonomy talks and wanted to head the resumed talks as his price for joining the government, may indicate Mr. Begin's future tack. Dayan aides leaked reports to the Israeli press to the effect that the prime minister expected to "get away with" a hard-line autonomy stand. A limited interpretation of Palestinian self-rule would clash with Egyptian -- and possibly US -- policy.

Should the autonomy talks bog down, however, Mr. Begin could face internal coalition resistance over Israel's scheduled final withdrawal from Sinai in April, 1982. Some members of the NRP and Likud strongly oppose dismantlement of Jewish settlements there.

Another issue which could cause coalition tensions is Israel's economy. Inflation has been kept down artificially, only by massive subsidies of basic commodities and fuel. Any sharp rise in inflation could lead to internal pressure for new policies -- or new elections.

Should new elections become unavoidable, one suggested date is November 1982 to coincide with scheduled municipal elections. Others suggest they might be held earlier to give a fresh mandate for the scheduled final withdrawal from Sinai.

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