Israel's shaky Shamir may be hard to oust
Jerusalem — It could be a lot harder than it looks for Israel's opposition parties to topple the right-wing coalition that has ruled for the past seven years. This is the view of many Israeli political analysts, despite the fact the government coalition is trailing badly in opinion polls and has been forced, by a parliamentary vote last Thursday, to call early national elections. The vote was the first such instance in Israeli history, underscoring how politically vulnerable the coalition has become in recent months.
The election may well help determine how quickly or completely the Israelis pull out of Lebanon - reversing an invasion gone so wrong that even the government that launched it is actively seeking a politically and strategically palatable exit. This will be one main campaign issue. The other one will be Israel's unraveling economy. Inflation is still in double digits each month.
Yet there seems far less prospect of change in the deadlock with Jordan over the future of Palestinians on the West Bank, no matter who wins the election. On Sunday, attention focused on when the elections would be held - and on the possibility that internal rivalries might result in replacement of the leaders of both the main governing party and the main opposition force. In a state ruled by a succession of charismatic personalities for its first decades, there is now a crisis of leadership on which various figures hope to stake a political comeback.
Opposition leaders want elections as soon as possible, which would mean late May. This is partly to head off a power struggle within opposition ranks. But another consideration is that the longer elections are delayed, the greater the opportunity for the incumbents to improve the economy or begin to pull out of Lebanon.
The main government party, Premier Yitzhak Shamir's Herut, naturally wants to hold off on elections as long as possible. But there are limits to how long it can credibly stall. Mr. Shamir has lost his parliamentary majority. Thursday's vote dissolved parliament and directed Shamir to go to the polls ahead of the scheduled balloting date, November 1985. Deliberations beginning Tuesday will likely set a compromise date for sometime around September of this year.
On paper, the prospects for an opposition victory and major policy changes would seem strong. The Labor Party, according to recent opinion polls, could ride to landslide victory on popular resentment over the Lebanon war and the economy. Labor's stated policy is to get out of Lebanon as quickly as possible, curb Jewish settlement on the West Bank, and actively pursue peace talks for the area with Jordan, Egypt, and ''any representative Palestinian who recognizes Israel.''
Yet at least one prominent Israeli pollster has recalled that, in the last national election campaign four years ago, the Herut-led Likud coalition also trailed badly in polls, only to outpace the opposition in the home stretch.
This time around, the Likud may find the going tougher. The Lebanon war has been causing ever wider resentment. The economy is in worse shape. And for the first time in its history, the right-wing parties will be campaigning without the leadership of Menachem Begin. The former premier, who resigned six months ago, was abhorred by many voters, adored by others. But, says one politician, he was ''an immensely effective and charismatic campaigner.'' No one says this of Shamir.
Yet the opposition has its own serious leadership problems. Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, who led the losing 1977 campaign, could face a challenge from one of two figures. These are former Premier Yitzhak Rabin, and former President Yitzhak Navon. In a January poll, Mr. Navon ran slightly ahead of Shamir as preferred prime ministerial timber. Mr. Peres lagged far behind both men.
Israeli politicians note that incumbency affords Shamir's party a number of advantages in the campaign. One is the ability to ease up on austerity measures.
''There are obviously intermediate steps to ease the economic burden that Likud would be mad not to exploit,'' says one conservative politician.
The other card in the Likud's hand is Lebanon. There seems no way the war there can be converted to the incumbents' advantage. But Shamir and Co. could limit its potentially harmful electoral effect somewhat before polling day.
One issue that has drawn much attention overseas, meanwhile, seems likely to figure only minimally in the campaign - the future of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Recent hard-line comments by Jordan's King Hussein will make it tough for Labor officials profitably to raise the issue of their hopes for ''territorial compromise'' or another form of negotiated settlement with the King.
And even if Labor does ultimately win the election, movement on that front will likely be difficult. Seven years of Likud rule have planted so many Jewish settlements on the West Bank that handing back enough of the territory to satisfy even minimal Arab negotiating terms will be a tall order. It will be an even taller one amid likely sniping from Likud and further-right groups in the opposition.