Israeli Laborites win battle, but may lose 'war'

Israel's national election has ended in a near deadlock likely to rule out any early initiative here on issues of Mideast peace. There could well be moves toward alternative security arrangements for the border area. But that is because, election or no election, the open-ended war to the north has soured for just about everyone in the Israeli political arena.

Only on the fast-unraveling economy could the balloting yet have some definitive policy effect - by forcing a ''national unity'' government pledged to implement necessarily unpopular austerity moves.

Still, such a government is anything but a foregone conclusion.

Many Israeli experts predict, instead, that one of the country's two major parties - the incumbent right-wing Likud or the left-leaning Labor Party - will successfully try to piece together a hair's-breadth parliamentary majority with various splinter groups.

This would mean ''a government on chicken's legs,'' remarked one young Israeli rabbi, Avi Weinstein, in a post-election sigh widely echoed here Tuesday. Or, as former Likud government spokesman Zeev Chafets put it, the result would be ''a government of paralysis.''

The tale of the numbers in Monday's election, on the basis of near-total returns Tuesday, is this:

Labor, bidding to break seven years of Likud rule and restore its own dominance of Israeli politics, won the battle but seems to have lost the war.

Labor is expected to end up with roughly 45 of the 120 seats in Israel's parliament.

The ruling Likud, dropping about seven seats from the last election in 1981, should get 40 or 41.

But the shape of the next government will depend on feverish backroom bargaining by both major parties with a handful of cagily opportunistic smaller parties.

The key kingmakers include various Orthodox Jewish religious parties, and the new centrist grouping under former Defense Minister Ezer Weizman.

The first stage in the business of forming a government will be a call by Israel's largely ceremonial President for one of the two major parties to try to put together a coalition.

Although there's no hard-and-fast rule governing the choice, the assumption is that President Chaim Herzog will give Labor the nod, since it emerged from the voting as the single largest party.

And depending on which way the key smaller parties sway, Labor could well arrange a legislative majority. The hitch is that Likud could do the same, if the smaller parties go the other way.

''It depends,'' says a longtime Israeli official, ''what each side offers, in terms of money for special interests, or in terms of Cabinet posts.''

Another local expert, retired veteran BBC correspondent Michael Elkins, was considerably blunter on an Israeli radio discussion show Tuesday. ''Blackmail,'' he said, is what coalition bargaining was likely to be all about.

Yet a further intangible is that a few of the small groupings broke with this Israeli tradition Tuesday and, citing the country's deep economic crisis, voiced support for a ''national unity'' Cabinet.

Likud, led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, says it wants this - meaning that despite its defeat Monday by plurality, it wants to stay in power at the head of a more broadly based Cabinet. Labor, so far, wants no part of the idea, preferring instead to try to reap whatever it can from its electoral victory, even though the triumph was far narrower than Labor leader Shimon Peres had predicted and hoped.

Mr. Peres, having produced only a watery win after two earlier failures in running for prime minister, has special reason to put together whatever necessarily shaky coalition he can muster.

''Peres, otherwise, is finished,'' says a pro-Labor professor and political analyst at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

To understand why requires backtracking to the campaign. Peres had hoped and assumed that - with inflation racing at 400 percent annually, with a Likud-engineered Lebanon war turning sour, and with charismatic longtime Likud standard-bearer Menachem Begin in voluntary seclusion - Labor would win a clear popular mandate for change.

Notably, Labor had hinted at a fresh drive to trade part of the occupied West Bank for peace with neighboring Jordan. Likud and its allies say they have nothing against peace with Jordan, but do not intend to seek it at the price of ceding a patch of land they feel is Israel's by biblical right and by security imperative.

Instead, the election emphasized what seem increasingly ossified divisions within Israel - between right and left, religious and secular, well-off and disadvantaged, European and non-European Jewry.

And in terms of parties, the result was a nearly perfect split of about 50 parliamentary seats for each of the major parties if taken with their most natural ideological allies.

''Divided we stand,'' sighed one Israeli editorial headline Tuesday.

Practically, explains former Likud official Chafets, this means ''there can be no major movement in Israel on issues like the West Bank, or the Reagan peace plan'' for the area.

A narrow Labor coalition majority won't be strong enough, he and other analysts here reason, to move on that front. And any shared policy accord to facilitate a Likud-Labor ''unity'' government - no matter who actually heads it - would have to finesse the question and concentrate instead on issues where there is far more common ground.

These include Lebanon, where both parties want to get out as soon as is workable, and the economy, where both sides know that only serious austerity measures can end the overheating.

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