Israel set to get a coalition few people want

The closer Israel's two largest political parties get to forming a national unity government, the less each of them seems to like the idea. For weeks, editorial writers, politicians, and Israelis watching from the sidelines have urged leaders of the incumbent Likud and the left-leaning Labor Party to put aside partisan differences and form a joint government. Now, however, the parties and the nation seem to be having second thoughts about such a government.

Chief among the complaints is that as proposed, the government features an unwieldy number of Cabinet ministers (between 23 and 26) and power is so evenly divided between the Likud and Labor parties that they will serve as vetoes to each other on any important issue.

Many Israelis who six weeks ago believed that only a national unity government could solve this nation's daunting economic problems now fear such a government may be structurally incapable of making tough decisions on controversial issues.

At time of writing, Labor and Likud leaders were still trying to sell the framework agreed on by the parties' negotiating teams last week to their reluctant party central committees. As proposed, the government would feature an unprecedented rotation of the prime minister's job: Labor leader Shimon Peres would serve for the next two years, then be followed into office by the current prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir.

The Cabinet would be divided evenly between Labor and Likud. Only by enlarging the number of Cabinet portfolios could Peres and Shamir appease powerful party members and members of smaller parties they want to include in the government.

Even with the large number of Cabinet positions, both Shamir and Peres are faced with having more potential ministers than available seats. Both men have been under enormous pressure from various factions lobbying to get their representatives appointed.

The long weeks of negotiations since the inconclusive July 23 parliamentary elections have taken their toll both on the parties and the nation.

''There's no enthusiasm at all for this government. No one is even interested anymore. The mood is between apathy and depression,'' said Janet Aviad, one of the leaders of Israel's peace movement, Shalom Achshav. Ms. Aviad's group is to the left of Israel's political spectrum, but her comment was echoed by Israelis who support a variety of parties.

''I don't think this government will be able to do anything, really,'' said Dani Shulman, owner of a Jerusalem pet store. He voted for Yahad, the centrist party led by former Defense Minister Ezer Weizman.

''They (Labor and Likud leaders) have too many conflicts,'' Mr. Shulman said. ''They hate each other too much to work together. A few weeks ago, everyone thought national unity was the best solution. Now they think differently.''

Israel's most prestigious national newspaper, the independent Haaretz, characterized the proposed national unity government as ''the most wasteful and exhibitionistic government in the history of the state.''

In short, Israelis are beginning to suspect that national unity may be closer to national paralysis and that the government is being formed simply because neither party can find an alternative.

And to make matters worse for Peres and Shamir, both of whom need a national unity government to preserve their positions at the top of their parties, they are now facing open rebellion from some party members.

Peres has come under increasing attack from party members who say he gave up too much to the Likud. The most recent affront to the party's doves is that he reportedly agreed to include former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon in the Cabinet as the minister of industry and commerce.

Mr. Sharon was forced out of the defense ministership under former Prime Minister Menachem Begin because of Sharon's role in Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. But Sharon remained in the Cabinet as minister without portfolio. He is believed to be one of Shamir's two chief rivals for leadership of the Likud.

News that Sharon is to receive an important ministry in the national unity Cabinet has galvanized dovish members of Labor. Shalom Achshav launched a campaign in the nation's press urging Peres to reject Sharon. The peace group also planned public demonstrations.

Despite the complaints about the government, political circles here presume Shamir and Peres will be able to push the agreement through their parties and Israel's Labor-led government will be presented to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, by midweek.

The consensus is that despite its drawbacks and flaws, a national unity government is the best result Israel can pull from an election that showed the country is deeply divided along ethnic, economic, political, and religious lines.

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