TEL AVIV — Six weeks ago, after the Labor Party's Shimon Peres brought down the Government of National Unity, Israeli politics seemed to be headed in a new, more dovish direction. At the time, Peres was confident that he could form a new, left-leaning coalition without the hawkish Likud, which had shared power with Labor since 1984. To do so, Peres needed the support of at least 61 members of the 120-member Parliament, a goal he believed was attainable.
He came close, but not quite close enough. After 36 days of unappetizing, nonstop maneuvering that included personal defections, betrayals, miscalculations and unabashed political bribery by both parties, Peres came up one vote short. On Thursday, the Labor Party leader informed Israel's President Chaim Herzog that he could not form a government. Now it is Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir's turn to try.
That effort is likely to result in a trip back to the future. For the past six years, the Israeli electorate has divided its votes almost evenly between the Likud and its even more hawkish allies on the one hand, and the doves, led by Labor, on the other. Neither bloc has had enough support to form a government on its own. As a result, since 1984 Israel has been ruled by "unity" governments--uneasy partnerships between the Likud and Labor. Experts here are betting that another such government will emerge in the coming weeks.
On paper, Shamir might be able to put together a narrow coalition, based on the Likud, three small right-wing parties, a group of dissident ex-Likud parliamentarians, two ultraorthodox factions and a defector from a third rabbinical party, Agudat Yisrael. Together they would give him 61 votes, the bare minimum needed to form a government. The question is, does Shamir want to head such a coalition?
The prime minister faced the same question after the last national election in 1988. Then, too, he could have put together a narrow, nationalist-orthodox government, but opted instead for a Likud-Labor partnership. That partnership turned into a two-headed political monster, unable to act or even speak in a single voice. The fact that Shamir is now contemplating a return to such an arrangement is an indication of how unattractive a narrow government seems to him.
There are solid reasons for this. First, such a coalition would be, to put it charitably, unstable. Many of Shamir's potential allies on the right, including some in his own party, are extremely unreliable. One, Avraham Sharir, defected to Labor in return for the promise of a ministerial job, and is only now in the process of crawling back. Another, Yitzhak Modai, has branded Shamir a liar and demanded a $10-million bank guarantee to ensure that the prime minister keep his pledge to appoint him minister of finance. A third, Ariel Sharon, recently engaged in an ugly public row with Shamir, in which each man tried to shout down the other through twin microphones. In a 61-member coalition, Shamir would be at the mercy of all three, as well as a number of other equally disloyal politicians.
Nor is Shamir anxious to be held captive by the far right. No dove himself, he is far more centrist than the small nationalist parties led by people like Geula Cohen, who wants Israel to annex the West Bank and Gaza immediately, or Echavam Ze'evi, who favors mass deportation of Arabs from the occupied territories. Shamir and the Likud oppose such policies, and there is no chance that they could be adopted, but the super-hawks could be expected to pressure him to do so, a formula for constant Cabinet dissension.
The two ultraorthodox parties in the Likud camp are also not attractive partners. Shas and Degal Hatorah, which together have eight members of Parliament, are controlled by 92-year-old Rabbi Eliezer Shach, who recently called into question the Jewishness of non-religious Israelis--the bulk of the Likud's supporters. Moreover, Rabbi Shach is a dove who would certainly oppose any move to the right, leaving Shamir caught in the middle of a tug of war.
In the face of such potential difficulties, the drawbacks of a new unity government may not seem so terrible to the Likud leader. True, such a coalition would be a prescription for national paralysis, but Shamir, a cautious, somewhat phlegmatic man, would not necessarily be displeased by inaction, especially on the Palestinian issue. A Likud-Labor government would also enable him to return the day-to-day handling of the Palestinian uprising to Labor's Yitzhak Rabin, thus creating wide bipartisan support for the hard-line policies that the two men share.
A new unity government might also be more docile than the previous one. Peres now faces a challenge in his own party, and even if he survives it, he is certain to be politically diminished by his recent failure. Moreover, now that the noses have been counted, Labor can no longer credibly threaten the Likud with an alternative government, something which it did, loud and often, in the past.