The chaotic collapse of a convention of Israel's largest right-wing party raises doubts about how long the ``national unity'' government can survive. The Herut Party appeared on the point of splitting in half Thursday after its raucous and sometimes violent convention disintegrated amid name-calling and accusations. Herut is the largest component of the nationalist Likud bloc, which is a partner in the government with the centrist Labor Party.
If Herut were to split, observers say, Labor would be unlikely to keep its agreement to hand over the premiership to Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir in October. The Labor-Likud agreement of October 1984 says that the premiership should pass to a Likud headed by Shamir, who is currently vice-premier and foreign minister.
``That agreement was signed with a Shamir who could deliver,'' said one Likud member. ``Shamir can't deliver anything anymore. He's not the head of a party, he's the head of a faction.''
Shamir was humiliated at the Herut convention when Trade Minister Ariel Sharon and Labor Minister David Levy called into question Shamir's ability to perform as prime minister.
Labor Party ministers and Prime Minister Shimon Peres kept a low profile Thursday as Likud members scrambled to try to patch up differences between the Shamir and Levy factions. Likud sources said they thought it unlikely the differences could be resolved soon.
Before the convention debacle, the Labor Party had been all but resigned to the inevitability of rotation in October. Peres had come under increasing criticism from the party for his repeated refusal to break the coalition agreement and call for new elections. Labor officials saw themselves heading back into the opposition, where they spent seven years after Menachem Begin led the Likud to its first national electoral victory in 1977.
As the Herut convention began to more closely resemble a brawl than a political gathering, Labor's hopes of hanging onto power revived.
``It's not that this collapse has put new life into our party, it's simply destroyed theirs,'' said David Twersky, a Labor Party official.
Labor's strategy now, one senior party official said, is not to appear eager to exploit the Herut collapse and to ``let them continue killing themselves.''
``More than anything else, the results of this convention have vindicated Shimon Peres's patience,'' said a Peres adviser. The prime minister was scheduled to leave Israel today to attend a memorial service for slain Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in Stockholm. His spokesman, Uri Savir, said Peres still intends to make the trip.
The three-day Herut convention, the first in seven years, was supposed to choose a successor to Mr. Begin, who has lived in seclusion since he resigned as prime minister in 1983. Instead, the 2,000 delegates were caught up in a vicious power struggle between Shamir and Levy.
Levy told Israel Television he no longer had confidence that Shamir could serve effectively as prime minister. Shamir called Levy a megalomaniac and accused him of destroying the party.
On the opening night of the convention, Deputy Foreign Minister Roni Milo, a Shamir supporter, was knocked down by Levy supporters when he tried to address the convention. On the last night, party elder Yohanan Bader was shouted down when he tried to address the convention for what he pleaded with the delegates would probably be the last time.
The convention, one analyst says, ``revealed the internal paradox of Herut -- that it was in many ways a very democratic party, but that ultimately it was autocratic.'' Without Begin, who founded the party and was revered by his followers, no one Herut leader was able to control the delegates.
Not even an appearance by Benyamin Begin, Begin's son and a Shamir supporter, united the various factions. Benny Begin ran against Sharon for a key convention post and was defeated by a comfortable margin.
Shamir was quoted on Israel Radio Thursday as telling activists in his faction that he believed he had been too compromising with his opponents in the party in the past.
His flexibility, Shamir reportedly said, had allowed his opponents to mount the challenge to his leadership.
Analysts here say that what emerged during the convention was a clear split between the longtime mostly Euoropean-origin Likud members -- those who fought with Begin in the underground guerrilla group Irgun Zvei Leumi before Israel's statehood -- and the growing membership of young members, many of whom came from Arab nations or are the children of immigrants from Arab nations.
The old guard supports Shamir while the younger members, known as Sephardim, follow Levy -- a Moroccan-born Jew who grew up in an obscure town.
``The Sephardim who caused the fall of the [Labor] Alignment in 1977 began yesterday to control the party that they stormily raised to power,'' wrote Shaul Evron, an Israeli columnist, in an analysis of the convention's collapse.
The danger now facing the party, said one observer, is that it will split into two ethnically-based factions.
``If there is a split, there will be an Ashkenazi Herut that will have all the symbols of the underground and there will be a Sephardi Herut which will become an ethnic list. Levy doesn't want that because the Sephardim alone cannot elect him prime minister,'' said Zeev Chafets, an iconoclastic former Likud member.