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Begin rides shifting pyramid with plenty of coalition glue

The three-year old government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin is being held together by a unique Israeli political concoction that can be defined, for want of a better expression, as coalition glue.

This strange substance, capable of keeping politicians stuck to their respective ministerial chairs and Knesset (parliament) seats, has proved more powerful than public opinion polls, dramatic resignations by charismatic ex-Cabinet members, and constant criticism, often bordering on ridicule, in the Hebrew press.

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With the possible exception of President Carter, no other national leader in the free world gets lower marks for executive performance and political wisdom than Mr. Begin. But although the Israeli constitutional system, unlike that of the United States, allows for elections at any time, Mr. Begin still is firmly in control.

The prime minister not only expects to complete his initial four-year term next year, but also to lead his right-wing Likud coalition to victory over the Labor Alignment.

Is this mere rhetorical bombast, or does Mr. Begin have a basis for his self-confidence?

If one were to judge by the blows Mr. Begin sustained in the stormy resignation of Ezer Weizman as defense minister last month and by his ferocious rebuttal of the younger man's rationale for quitting, the prime minister could not be described as a loser.

Nor did Mr. Begin seem to quiver when his nomination to replace Mr. Weizman, and especially his choice as foreign minister to stand in for the defense minister-designate, sparked a revolt in the ranks of the coalition's Democratic Party.

He simply put his proposals into abeyance, took over the defense portfolio himself (disregarding critics who contended that he could not possibly devote the time required by Israel's biggest governmental institution), and let the Democrats fume.

This behavior evidently stems from a belief that the 65 Knesset deputies out of 120 who are aligned with his coalition will stand by him, if only because they have too much to lose by causing his downfall.

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Exercises in parliamentary arithmetic inevitably show Mr. Begin ahead even when deductions are made for individual desertions in prospective votes of no confidence.

If the Democrats deny Mr. Begin their six votes, he can fall back on two independent members of parliament, Moshe Dayan and Samuel Flatto-Sharon (an enigmatic immigrant from France whose extradition for financial irregularities is sought by the French authorities).

He can also count on Rabbi Kalman Kahana, a sympathetic deputy from the Agudat Israel Workers' Party.

Thus, Mr. Begin probably can survive without the Democrats. And he almost certainly can manage to win in case his finance minister, Yigal Horowitz, and the three-member RAFI (workers') faction should quit.

Mr. Horowitz's staying power depends on his ability to put over drastic cuts in Israel's towering military budget -- the very point over which Mr. Weizman resigned.

As for Mr. Weizman, he now is Mr. Begin's most bitter political enemy despite their being members of the same Herut (freedom) movement within the Likud coalition. He also is still a virtual loner.

The former Air Force chief, who engineered the Likud's first victory in 1977 while Mr. Begin was ill, has yet to organize a base -- either within or without the Likud.

The only real threat to Mr. Begin's coalition exists in its second-biggest component: the National Religious Party, which has 12 Knesset deputies compared with the Likud's 45.

Its leader, Interior Minister Yosef Burg, is disappointed that his first opportunity to function on the international stage as head of Israel's negotiating team at the autonomy talks has reached a dead end.

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