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Israeli Cabinet Fights Intensify : Meetings Often Raucous; 'Rotation Fever' Blamed

March 09, 1986|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — A recent Israeli Cabinet meeting degenerated into such a raucous exchange of insults that Prime Minister Shimon Peres went on national television to vow that it would never be allowed to happen again.

"Liar! Liar!" the health minister had shouted at the finance minister, who replied that he was sick of his colleague's "fat, self-satisfied face."

Their outburst could be explained in part by the fact that they are members of different political parties. But, in a later meeting, leaders of the same party were calling each other "Mafiosi."

Pact Binds Blocs

All this is part of what Benny Morris, a Jerusalem Post political writer, refers to as "pre-rotation fever." It is brought on by the agreement of September, 1984, which binds Israel's two largest political blocs in a so-called government of national unity.

Under the agreement, Prime Minister Peres, of the Labor Alignment, and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, of the Likud Bloc, are to switch, or rotate, posts on Oct. 14.

Since the agreement was struck, it has been conventional political wisdom that the unnatural alliance could not last that long. If the genuine ideological differences between the parties failed to do it, the analysts predicted, Labor would take advantage of Peres' growing popularity to break the coalition--by no later than this month--and force new elections.

Change in Diagnosis

Ironically, the outbreak of pre-rotation fever coincides with what appears to be a significant change in the diagnosis.

"I think more and more people are convinced that the rotation will take place," a Western diplomat said the other day.

Even some of the Labor officials most concerned about seeing another Likud prime minister say dejectedly that they see no better than a 50-50 chance for preventing the switch.

"My prediction is 60% for rotation," Labor's secretary general, Uzi Baram, said recently in an interview.

Labor stalwarts who see themselves slipping into a second-class role, out of the spotlight they have enjoyed with Peres as prime minister, are the principal victims of pre-rotation fever. But Likud officials are by no means immune. They agree that the political winds seem to be more favorable to them, but they are concerned that as the time for the switch draws nearer, Labor will grow more desperate about breaking the agreement.

Rivalry for Leadership

Also, Likud is still plagued by personal rivalry for the leadership. Former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Likud's founder, retired from public office more than two years ago, but he is still titular head of the bloc's dominant Herut faction. Shamir is the acting leader, and competition for the leadership is expected to intensify with the opening today of the Herut convention. It was in connection with the convention that rival Likud ministers exchanged the Mafia charges.

The prospect of the October changeover also affects the internal Likud battle, for there are those seeking a change in Likud leadership who believe that the way can be paved toward that goal, without playing into Labor's hands, by undermining Shamir before he can become prime minister.

It is said that at least one of Shamir's rivals, Industry and Trade Minister Ariel Sharon, might want to see the coalition collapse rather than have Shamir take over and use the prime minister's office as a platform from which to groom a successor as Likud leader. Shamir's choice for his successor is rumored to be Moshe Arens, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States who at present is minister without portfolio in the Cabinet.

Sharon's Strength Fading

Still, Sharon's political strength seems to be on the wane. "At this point, the winds in Herut are very definitely blowing against Sharon," a Likud source said.

Obviously, Shamir does not want to upset the rotation schedule, but there is growing pressure in the Labor Alignment for Peres to do it. Public opinion polls indicate that the centrist Labor Alignment would win 55 of the 120 seats in the Knesset (Parliament) if an election were held now, compared with 30 seats for the rightist Likud. Labor won 44 seats in the inconclusive election of July, 1984, that led to formation of the national unity government; Likud won 41.

There has been an extraordinary turnaround in the public perception of Peres, who used to be thought of as Israel's version of Richard Nixon, an able but not quite trustworthy leader.

"It's almost unheard of for a man in his fourth political decade to change his public image," said David Garth, an American political consultant who is a partner in an Israeli consulting firm. "Peres has done this."

Reneging Could Be Costly

Labor's problem is that if Peres is seen to be reneging on the rotation agreement, it could cost him and the party all they have gained.

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