WHEN Yitzhak Rabin's new government took power in Israel six months ago, nothing so cheered liberal voters, or so outraged the conservative opposition, as the appointment of three ministers from the left-wing Meretz coalition.
Today, however, the grouping that campaigned on the offer of "the power to make a difference" finds itself rubberstamping Mr. Rabin's own policy more often than shaping the government's direction. And initial hopes or fears that last June's elections marked a radical departure for Israel after 15 years of right-wing Likud Party rule appear to have been ill founded.
For Meretz, led by veteran human rights campaigners who have long pushed for peace with the Palestinians, the crunch came last month with Rabin's decision to expell 415 Palestinians after the murder of an Israeli policeman. To the horror of Meretz rank and file, their three ministers voted in favor of the move, which has since drawn worldwide condemnation.
When she voted Meretz last June, says peace activist Veronica Cohen, "I expected Meretz to perform a watchdog function ... that they would not allow something like this to happen."
The vote did more than give the lie to Likud taunts that Rabin's dependence on Meretz votes in the Knesset (parliament) made him a "prisoner in a dovecote." It also revealed the fundamental weakness of the Meretz position in the government, and laid bare its lack of influence.
Beyond the Meretz ministers' arguments about the need to deal harshly with the uncompromising Islamists of the radical Palestinian group Hamas, the main target of the expulsions, their bottom line is that only by staying in the government can they ensure vigorous pursuit of their top priority - peace with Israel's Arab neighbors.
"The alternative would be dreadful," warns Dedi Zucker, a Meretz Knesset member. Rabin has made no secret of his readiness - should he have problems with his leftist coalition partner - to turn to the right-wing Tsomet Party to bolster his government.
"Meretz has no other option, they can go only with Labor, so they have no leverage," says Danny Ben Simon, a political analyst for the daily newspaper Davar. "Since they don't have a way out, they are taken for granted." Shielding Rabin
Worse than this, complain some critics, is the way in which Meretz' presence in the Cabinet essentially shields Rabin from criticism from the left. Last month's expulsions, for example, shows that "Rabin can do things that no Likud government would have dared to do," says Yitzhak Be'er, head of the Israeli human rights watchdog Btselem.
Even Meretz supporters like Ms. Cohen, who says she was "always among those who felt it was better Meretz should be in government than out, that they shouldn't risk getting kicked out in favor of Tsomet," thinks her leaders went too far by supporting the expulsions.
"There has to be a red line, because if you cross it, you lose your raison d'etre," she argues.
For Mr. Zucker, "the red line is when the prospects for the peace process become negative. That is the criterion." Until then, he insists, Meretz must be a loyal coalition partner. Little imprint felt
But for all Meretz' insistence on the importance of the peace process, Palestinian negotiators say they have seen little evidence of a Meretz imprint on Rabin's negotiating strategy. It was not long, recalls Ziyyad Abu Ziyyad, a leading Palestinian figure, before "we started to realize that this government did not bring a substantial change to Israeli policies."
And while Rabin is hanging tough in talks with the Palestinians in Washington, Palestinians in the occupied territories have seen no change in the way the army behaves. Although no homes have been demolished since Rabin took office, and the number of Palestinian detainees has fallen marginally, a recent Btselem report found no overall improvement in human rights under the new government.
Having welcomed Meretz' rise to Cabinet rank, most Palestinians have now lost faith in their old Israeli allies. "They felt that Meretz were people they could talk to, that they could look at in the eyes," says Cohen, who organizes Palestinian-Israeli dialogue groups.
"Suddenly," she adds, "with the deportation vote, they were kicked in the teeth."
Nevertheless, says Mr. Abu Ziyyad, "we still have a joint interest in making the peace process work, and we must continue to work together." And he acknowledges that "there is some logic" to Meretz' argument that only by remaining a coalition partner in good standing can it keep pressing for peace.
"I think it is only fair to give them more time," he says. Freedom vs. influence
Only time, agrees Zucker, will tell how worthwhile it has been for Meretz to compromise for a place at the Cabinet table.
"On the one hand you want to give your prime minister the freedom to work without unnecessary burden, and on the other hand you want to have an influence," Zucker says.
"So far, we are much closer to the first pole. But if time passes and there is no serious progress towards peace, we will have to move towards the other pole."