Israel's Labor gets nod, but power struggle remains

Israel has taken a first step toward replacing right-wing rule with a ''national unity'' government focusing on the country's deepening economic crisis and social divisions.

But there is still much skepticism on all sides of the political spectrum about whether such a cabinet will actually be formed.

The trick, now, will be to watch what Israel's major political party leaders do - not what they say.

Like such leaders everywhere, these men are sometimes more interested in their partisan fortunes than in the more woolly business of furthering ''the national interest.''

Just about everyone who matters has jumped on the ''national unity'' bandwagon. The idea has become something close to the local equivalent of baseball and apple pie in recent days, after last month's inconclusive national election.

The voters gave the opposition Labor Party a plurality of 44 seats in Israel's 120-member parliament. The incumbent right-wing Likud got 41 seats. This meant neither side could, alone, command a majority. The balance of power lay in the hands of a host of smaller parties, chiefly representing the orthodox religious minority. A potentially crucial swing group was the new centrist party of former Defense Minister Ezer Weizman.

On Sunday, Israeli President Chaim Herzog took a first, practical step in the direction of getting the country's rival party leaders to put their ''national unity'' votes where their mouths are.

The President - an otherwise ceremonial figure who is legally charged with deciding who will form a government after elections - gave the nod to Labor chief Shimon Peres.

But Mr. Herzog - citing Israel's economic crisis and a growing ''absence of tolerance and dialogue'' among rival social, religious, and ethnic groups - called for a ''national unity government that would determine national priorities, primarily in the economic field.''

Mr. Peres vowed to try to do just that. And Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir pledged his help - in the form of an agreement to continue last week's preliminary Labor-Likud ''clarification talks'' on the idea of a unity alliance.

But the key question is whether Israel's various party chiefs are prepared - in the words of Peres's acceptance speech Sunday - to ''place the will of the people above the positions of its factions.''

Of all the party leaders, Peres would seem to have the greatest interest in the national-unity idea. He has finally come at least within striking distance of becoming premier after two earlier electoral defeats to at the hands of the Likud.

Peres has an initial 21-day period to try to put together a ruling majority. Then Mr. Herzog must decide whether to extend the period for another 21 days, or perhaps give Mr. Shamir's Likud a shot.

Private remarks from Labor figures suggest that Peres envisages bringing in Mr. Shamir and several other top Likud names as ministers. They say such appointments would be made as a bid to minimize partisan sniping in a time when economic austerity measures must be adopted to dent a huge foreign debt and slow a 400-percent annual inflation rate.

A Labor-Likud entente would also be useful in managing efforts to get Israeli troops home from Lebanon - something almost all Israeli politicians favor.

The major ideological bone of contention between the main parties - the future of the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip - would presumably be put on hold.

But one veteran political analyst here remarked privately after Herzog's move Sunday: ''The main issue between Labor and Likud is not ideology, but power.''

The same may hold true for smaller parties, despite public endorsement of the ''national unity'' idea. Each group is likely to be bargaining and gauging how best to maximize its own influence in the days ahead as Labor tries to fashion a majority.

Likud will want to see whether Peres can manage a majority - by offering concessions to smaller parties - without Likud. If this seems impossible, Shamir might conceivably hold out to for getting a chance to succeed where Labor fails.

The smaller parties, similarly, will want to see whether - for the first time in Israeli history - the major parties will assemble a governing majority without needing the support of orthodox religious groupings. If so, even if Peres does choose to include the orthodox parties, their influence could be less than in recent years.

On the face of it, the religious parties would seem to have a greater community of interest with the Likud than with the secularist, left-leaning Labor.

But politics is politics. One Labor source jibes privately that Peres might be willing ''to put on a skullcap and not drive on the Sabbath'' in order to strenghen his leadership position. Another pundit adds that Peres ''can buy a lot of yeshivas (religious schools) in 21 days.''

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