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Israeli Lawmakers Urged to Unite

Politics: New parliament hears plea at swearing-in. Barak seeks to form Cabinet.

June 08, 1999|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Ehud Barak may have been elected Israel's next prime minister by a huge majority, but the parliament elected along with him, and sworn in Monday, is the most splintered in the country's history.

And that is the problem facing Barak, who is struggling to weave together disparate factions to form a coalition government that can give him sufficient backing as he pursues peace with the Arabs, reins in Jewish settlements and shifts influence away from the religious right.

In a ceremony featuring a passage from Psalms, an homage to Zionism and a flourish from military trumpeters, Barak and 118 other men and women took their seats Monday as the 15th Knesset, or parliament. (One member was absent because of illness.)

President Ezer Weizman, who presided, urged the legislators to overcome their ethnic, religious and ideological differences because the agenda facing the Knesset, including a final settlement with the Palestinians, is so serious.

"The questions which should preoccupy you are first and foremost how to bridge the gaps and repair the splits in our society, which have widened to alarming dimensions," he told the assembled lawmakers, who ran the gamut of Israeli society from black-hatted, ultra-Orthodox Jews and settlers to Arabs and secular leftists.

Barak, who trounced right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the May 17 vote, initially said he would form a broad governing coalition after his own Labor Party won only 26 Knesset seats. His aides spoke of joining forces with parties that hold as many as 90 seats all told.

Increasingly, however, it appears that Barak will fall far short of his goal. The most stubborn obstacle has been whether to include the second- and third-largest blocs--Netanyahu's Likud Party and the ultra-Orthodox party Shas--and at what price.

Barak said this week that the "door is open" for Likud or Shas to join his government if they follow a set of guidelines that include accelerated peace negotiations and respect for the rule of law and democratic principles. If they refuse, he said, he could rule with a more narrow base.

"I am not scared by a government of 66 seats," Barak told Israeli radio Monday.

It was not at all clear by Monday evening, however, if he even had 66.

The debate over Shas has been especially divisive. Several senior Labor members spoke out in favor of inviting Shas, which stunned most Israelis by increasing its share of the Knesset in this election by 70%, to 17 seats. But two parties that Barak was counting on, the leftist Meretz, with 10 seats, and the stridently secular Shinui, with six, refuse to sit with Shas.

Barak failed late Monday to persuade Meretz leader Yossi Sarid to reconsider his veto.

Shas is seen as a desirable coalition partner, in contrast to Likud, because it is supportive of peace agreements. But its leader was convicted of bribery earlier this year, and members refuse to recognize Israeli courts or police, obeying only their rabbi, and insist on using public funds to pay for their private, ultra-Orthodox schools.

Meretz is not the only problem cropping up for Barak. Other parties balked as soon as their names were floated as certain coalition-joiners. Disagreements include Barak's desire to require military service for yeshiva students and his intention to freeze Jewish settlement in the Palestinian-dominated West Bank--a position he reiterated Monday.

Barak has until July 8 to form his government. Failure would trigger new elections, but this isn't considered likely. Most of the haggling now is seen as jockeying by politicians looking for the best deal for their parties--and by a wily Barak, who seems to delight in keeping everyone guessing.

The fractious alignments are the product of Israel's oddly hybrid political system, which since 1996 has combined the direct election of a prime minister, like the American presidential vote, with a Knesset chosen by voters who pick a party rather than individual candidates.

The result this year was the election of 15 parties, a record, and the demise of large parties--and a government that will be forever counting heads to see if it has the votes as it moves from issue to issue.

Until Barak names the government, including Cabinet ministers, Netanyahu technically continues in office as prime minister. Netanyahu announced that he will resign his Knesset seat, but in the meantime he appeared Monday to take his oath alongside the other members of parliament.

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