Crisis of leadership besets troubled Israel. Political parties can barely coexist, let alone find a way for Israelis and Palestinians to live together

``Impasse?'' ``That,'' says Abba Eban, ``is almost an understatement.... There's a lack of capacity to decide at a time when decision is most needed.''

As Israel faces its most serious political unrest ever, it is saddled with its deepest crisis of leadership. The Palestinian uprising has focused unprecedented public attention on the question of how Jews and Arabs can coexist. But the two senior parties in the four-year-old ``national unity'' coalition - the right wing Likud and leftist Labor - can hardly bring themselves to coexist with each other. Rivalries not only between, but inside, these parties have left them incapable of generating new ideas, much less inspiration.

In this vacuum, says a senior member of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's Likud movement, ``The tendency has been a strengthening of the small extremist parties on both left and right.'' So far, at least, the larger drift seems rightward.

With national elections due by November, the key question is whether either Likud or Labor will notch sufficient gains to free them from the need to remain in coalition. A neck-and-neck finish at the polls in 1984 forced the perennial rivals to share a Cabinet table for only the second time in Israeli history (the first being an emergency coalition formed on the eve of the 1967 war).

Much more is at stake this time around than mere party fortunes. ``Today,'' says a Hebrew University political scientist, Yitzhak Galnoor, ``the divisions go beyond party politics and reach all the way into the belief systems of individuals and groups in society. Stalemate on the most basic question - what to do about the territories - has halted the country in its tracks.''

Mr. Eban expects the election to change this, by voting in a Labor government with a mandate to trade land for peace. He contends that there has always been a ``clear majority of Israelis who favor such a trade.''

But few other political analysts here expect so clear an outcome. For even if Labor or Likud wins enough Knesset seats to rule without the other, neither is near striking distance of the absolute majority needed to govern without smaller, special-interest factions - notably Orthodox religious groups.

Moreover, Eban's contention that a majority of Israelis do favor trading land for peace is at least open to doubt. He cites as evidence the groundswell of support here for returning the captured Sinai Peninsula after President Sadat's surprise visit to Jerusalem a decade ago. But a similar overture from other Arab quarters is highly unlikely at present (if only because Sadat's initiative is still seen in the Arab world as a factor in his assassination a few years later). There is no indication here of majority backing for an Israeli initiative to concede land for eventual peace.

Besides, most Israeli analysts add, there seems no leader in either major party with the inclination, constituency, or personal charisma to make such an Israeli initiative feasible.

So where, then, have all the leaders gone, in a state led by such forceful figures as David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Menachem Begin? This ``generation of 1948'' has given way to what a Hebrew University professor, Naomi Chazan, terms a ``generation of sons ... which came to power rather late.'' She says, ``It has not succeeded in nurturing a central figure at this point.''

Still less as it nurtured policies of its own.

Inside Likud and Labor, there is at least as much tension over party leadership these days as over party policy. In Labor, party sources say, there can be little doubt of the rivalry between Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin (who, in the 1970s, was briefly prime minister himself). Another Labor Cabinet minister apparently hopeful of becoming the absent ``central figure'' to which Mrs. Chazan refers is Ezer Weizman.

In Likud, an aging Mr. Shamir is in the political gunsights of at least two nominal party allies: David Levy, the first Sephardic Jew to come within credible reach of the prime ministership, and Ariel Sharon, the former defense minister and architect of the 1982 Lebanon war.

``No one wants to make a move against the party leader before the election,'' a senior Likud figure explains. ``They know that the senior levels of the party would fall in behind the incumbent, that they'd have no choice but to do so.''

The election, he is sure, will be hard-fought. Yet he is equally certain that the real process of deciding who may be the ``central figure'' in a future Israel will probably only begin (inside the major parties) after election day.

Yet for such a figure to truly break political stalemate, he must also break with Israeli history. Labor and Likud are not merely rival political parties. They are historical institutions, with direct roots to pre-state Zionist movements - movements that in turn reflected very different social backgrounds and world views.

The major actors in that drama have now gone, or are going. But the divide between these rival Zionisms has merely been reinforced by more modern rivalries: Ashkenazi vs. Sephardi, for instance, or secular vs. religious.

``The [political] paralysis is not within the politicians,'' argues Ehud Olmert, at 53 mentioned frequently as one of the most promising of the ``younger'' generation of Likud members. ``There is a deep division within the Israeli people.''

One effect is to make it extremely difficult for independent political figures to successfully push new ideas or approaches outside the two major parties. But there have been attempts. The most successful was the launching during the 1977 campaign by Yigal Yadin, an archaeologist and war hero, of the centrist Democratic Movement for Change. This corralled enough seats to make it the most powerful non-Likud partner in Mr. Begin's coalition.

But in allowing himself to be co-opted into the expansion of West Bank settlements, and other policies he and his movement opposed, Mr. Yadin went a long way toward discrediting the idea of third-party movements in the eyes of the Israeli electorate.

A more recent stab at such a movement - the 1984 creation of a new party, called ``Unity'' by Mr. Weizman - seemed to suffer not only from this voter skepticism, but from the even more serious challenge of convincing voters that Arab-Israeli peace was an urgent and central matter in their lives. Weizman's party got only a handful of the 120 Knesset seats, sufficient only to win him a Cabinet post inside a Labor Party where he is still viewed by many as an outsider.

Equally difficult, if unprecedented, has been the recent move by a group of Tel Aviv law professors to draft a constitution for Israel. They have managed to solicit support for the endeavor from a wide range of Israeli mayors, and some prominent Knesset members. But most analysts here say only a concerted move by one, maybe even both, of the two major parties can bring the project, and the exercise in self-definition it implies, to fruition.

Indeed, it is a man given up for politically deceased only a few years ago - Mr. Sharon - who at present seems the strongest contender to inherit the leadership mantle of the generation of 1948. Abrasively, almost consciously truculent in his public demeanor, Sharon is a man whose ideology is muscle: The idea that getting things done is what matters, and that if one has sufficient faith and staying power, there is almost nothing that can't be done. To this day, his answer to critics of the Lebanon war is that the problem with Israel's invasion was that it stopped before its logical endpoint: subduing, utterly and completely, the PLO and its allies in Beirut.

Sharon has left little doubt that he feels Israel must stand firm. He simply let the protesters know they cannot win their stated demands of Palestinian statehood. He has made it equally clear the long-term solution lies in a recognition that Jordan is already, in everything but name, this Palestinian state.

Oddly, even a few fiercely anti-Sharon political pundits on the Israeli left have begun quietly to speculate on the possibility that he may prove the least of a lot of unappetizing candidates for a ``central figure'' to lead Israel out of its current crisis. ``An argument can be made,'' says one of these, ``that precisely because Arik [Sharon] has no firm political ideology beyond a mix of personal ambition and a determination to get things done, it is he who will manage to sense the practical need to seal a workable political resolution of Palestinian grievances. ...''

For many Israelis, however, Sharon is an anathema - a man who symbolizes, in the phrase of one Peace Now activist, ``a [Lebanon] war which needlessly sacrificed Israeli lives and damaged Israel morally.''

Remarks such as these serve as a reminder that, regardless of what happens on the partisan front, the Palestinian uprising and other recent events have helped trigger an unprecedentedly fierce debate among ordinary Israelis over where their country is, or should be, going.

Yet so far, the crisis seems most to have benefited politicians on the right wing - men like Shamir, Sharon, and even Labor's reconstituted Mr. Rabin, all of whom have moved to shore up Israeli morale by stressing military muscle over political compromise. Their approach seems likely to remain the predominant one, especially if the Army manages to restore even tenuous order on the West Bank and in Gaza. (Israelis, says one pro-Labor author privately, ``would love to go back to sleep as far as the Palestinian question is concerned, if given a chance.'')

A major shake-up in Israeli politics, many analysts here now argue, may have to await either an energetic new leader inside Israel, or new pressures outside.

``The political paralysis will end,'' says Israeli author, and former Likud member, Zeev Chafets, ``when Israel sees a clear and present danger or a clear and present opportunity.''

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