Israeli coalition in turmoil

Israel's painstakingly assembled ''national unity'' government is facing its first major internal crisis, sparked by a power struggle between two small orthodox religious factions.

Neither of the coalition's major leaders - Prime Minister Shimon Peres of the Labor Party or Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir of the more conservative Herut Party (the largest member of the Likud bloc) - wants the three-month-old government to fall.

Within their own parties, they would be the major losers if this happened. Israel's precarious economy would be another casualty.

The main likely beneficiaries of a collapsed coalition would seem to be Mr. Shamir's rivals within the Herut. These are, principally, hawkish former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and the young populist housing minister, David Levy.

Whether the crisis is serious enough to topple the government was, at time of writing, too early to say.

Israel Radio said Prime Minister Peres seemed to have won a 48-hour reprieve in which to resolve the crisis at a meeting with Shamir.

At immediate issue is the assignment of two major Cabinet posts: the Interior Ministry and the Religious Affairs Ministry. Tension between the coalition's main rival orthodox parties had caused Peres to delay filling the posts in the first place.

But a hard-line bargaining position by the better established of those factions - the National Religious Party (NRP) - has finally brought the conflict to a head.

Yitzhak Peretz, the leader of the other, newer party - the Sephardic Torah Guardians - reacted two days ago by saying he was resigning in protest from the coalition. The resignation became effective Tueday.

The Torah Guardians' major coalition patron, Shamir's Herut Party, has threatened to leave the coalition as well unless Peres can reach a deal in which the Torah Guardians and the NRP each get one of the disputed Cabinet posts. The NRP wants the religious affairs portfolio, but is also demanding that religion-related prerogatives of the Interior Ministry be moved into the NRP's orbit.

Even if a face-saving compromise is arranged, the crisis has already served to underline how potentially fragile is the national-unity government, despite the strong commitment of the leaders of its two major parties.

Between them, Peres's Labor Party and Shamir's Herut control a large majority in the 120-member legislature.

But last summer's national election failed to give either of the major parties a clear majority of its own, thus lending enormous potential weight to an alphabet soup of smaller parties.

Under the coalition agreement, Peres is to be prime minister for roughly the next two years. Then Shamir is supposed to get his own equivalent term in charge.

The idea is that amid a severe economic crisis, Israel can't afford yet another national election - politically or economically.

But one spinoff has been that on controversial issues, such as the future of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the coalition partners have so far agreed to disagree.

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