Cabinet Rifts Test Israel's Rabin

Bickering between secular and ultra-orthodox religious members of his ruling coalition forces Rabin to put out political fires at a time of delicate peace negotiations

THE Israeli government is expected to survive a critical parliamentary vote of confidence today, but a month-long crisis in the ruling coalition has raised questions about Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's handling of the affair and augurs further crises in the near future.

At issue in today's vote are a number of controversial statements by Shulamit Aloni, the outspokenly secular education minister, that religious parties have said they found offensive.

Last-minute negotiations were expected to continue up until the moment of the vote to decide whether the Shas, the only religious party in the coalition led by the Labor Party, would vote with the government or not. Government officials expressed confidence that both Shas and Meretz, Ms. Aloni's left-wing party, would work out a deal enabling them to stay in the Cabinet.

"Both parties feel that this is the best possible government, and they both say they see no alternative to their staying in," says Rabin spokesman Gad Ben Ari.

Even if Shas votes with the opposition, Mr. Rabin's government still will command a slender majority of 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset (parliament). But Shas's six Knesset members would then be obliged to leave the government, and Rabin has said privately that he would not continue to lead an administration negotiating delicate peace treaties with Israel's neighbors if he were dependent for survival on the votes of five Israeli Arab Knesset members who currently back the government.

As the only man in a position to form a majority government, even if he presented his resignation to President Chaim Herzog, he would be certain to become prime minister again and would be almost equally certain to ask his current coalition partners to join him in a new government, political observers here agree.

But Rabin's willingness to let the crisis simmer for more than a month - since Shas leader and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri threatened to pull out of the government unless Aloni was fired - has led some to question his leadership.

"Rabin has two personalities," says Daniel Ben Simon, political correspondent for the Labor Party's daily newspaper Davar. "One is the man who handles security issues with such dominance, and the other loses control when he gets into coalition trouble. He could have ended this crisis if he had showed just a little of the determination that he displays in security affairs."

According to Mr. Ben Ari, however, the prime minister "has chosen to take a laid-back approach, not to be dominant, and to let his two partners resolve the crisis between them," because their quarrel has nothing to do with the Labor Party.

Nor has Rabin wanted to confront Shas to see whether the ultra-orthodox party is really willing to leave the government and give up its power and influence, "because he wants good relations with them," Ben Ari says.

At the same time, the prime minister has made it plain that he is angry with Aloni for so vocally raising many controversial religious issues - such as whether the world was created in six days - so soon into the government's term, forcing him to put out fires between coalition partners when he would rather concentrate on more momentous issues of state. In addition, Rabin was incensed when Aloni said publicly a few weeks ago that she knew he was willing to give up all the Golan Heights in return for peac e with Syria - an incautious assertion at best in the middle of negotiations.

The deal expected to be worked out between Meretz and Shas will probably leave Aloni in her job, although she may be asked to publicly apologize for her statements and give Shas appointees greater control over the Israeli education system.

But the Shas leader's ability to squeeze such concessions could encourage him to engineer another coalition crisis soon. The attorney general is due to file corruption charges against Rabbi Deri in the next few weeks, after a 30-month probe, and the minister is expected to fight any move to lift his parliamentary immunity. Threatening the government's stability, officials here say, is a powerful weapon in his arsenal.

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