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Israel's small parties cash in on political stalemate

Israel's small Orthodox religious and nationalist parties are cashing in on the nation's political deadlock. Both of Israel's largest parties, the incumbent Likud and the left-leaning Labor Party, have proved willing to promise a lot in return for the support of a few key parties that among them control only a handful of seats in the Knesset (parliament).

And the two parties have a lot to give. The biggest prizes are Cabinet portfolios, but the party that forms a government also can promise to support particular issues important to the small parties and commit funding for pet projects.

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The giveaway started when the Labor Party promised former Defense Minister Ezer Weizman that he could be either finance minister or foreign minister in return for his support of Labor.

Labor also promised Mr. Weizman that his centrist, secular Yahad Party could join with Labor in the next elections, according to Israeli news reports. He was promised three choice spots on Labor's list of Knesset candidates, reports say.

Weizman accepted, saying that his party, which holds three seats in the Knesset, would only support a Labor-led government.

That left three religious parties and one ethnic right-of-center party to be vied for.

Quickly recovering from the setback it suffered when Labor secured Weizman, Likud promised the Orthodox religious parties that it would protect their interests even if Labor and Likud formed a ''national unity'' government that would not include any members of religious parties. Likud also reportedly promised Aharon Abuhatzeira, who holds the right-of-center Tami Party's only Knesset seat, a guaranteed seat on its next Knesset list in return for his support.

The National Religious Party, whose leader, Yosef Burg, has been a member of every Israeli cabinet, has publicly maintained its commitment to join only a national-unity government. At the same time, Burg has said the NRP is loyal to Likud. Labor harbors little hope of attracting the NRP at this point.

Efforts of both parties have most recently turned to Agudat Yisrael, the Orthodox religious party that controls two seats. At time of writing, the party was leaning toward signing an agreement with the Likud, stating that Agudat would not join a Labor government.

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In wooing the Agudat, Labor agreed not to block passage of an amendment to the Israeli definition of who is a Jew. The proposed amendment to the Law of Return would mean that anyone converted to Judaism by a Reform or Conservative rabbi would not be recognized as a Jew by Israel.

Such converts would therefore not be entitled to immediate Israeli citizenship and related benefits guaranteed any Jew by the Law of Return.

The proposed amendment to the law has already been bitterly attacked by American Reform and Conservative rabbis, who see it as a slap in the face to their movements, which include the bulk of American Jews.

Labor leader Shimon Peres has angered many in his own party by assuring Agudat that Labor would allow its members to ''vote their conscience'' on the issue. It is believed that in a free vote, the amendment would pass.

In fact, so many concessions have been made by Labor to both the Likud and to smaller parties in the course of negotiations that Peres is now faced with a possible revolt within his own party.

Leaders of the socialist Mapam Party, which composes the left-wing of the Labor Alignment, have indicated Mapam will pull out of the Alignment if Labor joins a national-unity government.

''It's a no-win situation for Peres,'' a Labor Party official says. Peres is willing to concede on many of the party's principles, this analyst says, because he now is stigmitized with having failed to lead the party to victory three times and can only salvage his political career by becoming prime minister.

''For him, it's either Shimon Peres, prime minister, or Shimon who?'' the official says.

The situation is volatile, with just over two weeks left in the time allotted Peres to form a government before President Chaim Herzog turns to someone else - most likely Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. As the stakes grow, the smaller parties can be expected to up the ante in return for their support.

''The religious parties are the best political merchants that we have today in the Israeli political market,'' says Avraham Burg, an Israeli political writer and son of Yosef Burg.

''In Israel, the smaller you are, the stronger you are,'' he says. ''Now, the religious parties hold the balance of power. I can only tell you that whoever forms a government, they (the religious parties), will be there.''

But the reality now is that despite all the promises, threats, and pleas that the two largest parties have made to potential coalition partners, Israel's political logjam remains unbroken. The almost-even split in votes for Labor and Likud left both far short of the necessary 61 seats to form a Knesset majority.

''It's become a parlor game in Israel,'' a political observer said. ''You count (Knesset) coalition seats. You count up to 58, 59, 60, and then zero. You can't get beyond 60.''

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