Camp David under scrutiny; Begin under pressure; Coalition built on concessions to rabbis
Tel Aviv, Israel
"We're getting to be a country like Iran. That is not the Israel I camt to." So said a middle-aged Tel Aviv travel agent, who came to Israel from Argentina nine years ago. Like many older, commercially established Israelis -- "the Israelis of the '50s and '60s," as a European diplomat described them -- this man is concerned about the prospect of a new government that, in order to form a coalition, has granted unprecedented concessions to Orthodox rabbis.
"I do not see how this can last," says a Tel Aviv fruit stand manager. "There will be a backlash."
"I love Israel," says a gallery owner. "This government I can do without. But I am a little person, what can I do?"
Israelis have always reserved the right to criticize one another. This gives them a lively press and an almost anarchical parliament.
On foreign policy -- even despite recent dissent by Labor Party leaders Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, and Abba Eban -- Israelis are generally united. But on domestic issues, they seem split as never before.
These are the most controversial concessions that Mr. Begin has made to orthodoxy in order to hammer together his 61-seat coalition and to ensure support for what many believe are his ultimate aims -- annexing Gaza and "Judea and Samaria," as hard-liners call the West Bank.
* Stricter Sabbaths: Immediate end to El Al flights on Saturday and Jewish holidays, closure of seaports on these days, and no work by government- owned firms such as the railways and oil- drilling companies.
* Special status for the Orthodox: New wage scales for rabbis, more aid to the religious school system, special housing estates for young religious couples , exemptions from military service for rabbinical teachers and certain of their students.
* A more conservative approach to women's rights: limitations on the rights of common-law wives, barring married women from serving in the military.
"[Mr. Begin] is guilty of the most shameful and abject surrender. A religious minority has been able to impose its will on the majority," companies Labor Party Knesset whip Moshe Shahal. "This is sheer irresponsibility and contempt toward the greater part of Israeli society."
Even with these concessions, Prime Minister Menachem Begin's Likud coalition (which was virtually certain to take office this week but had not been finally approved at this writing) is a shaky, one-seat majority. Still, members of the opposition admit they are in no position to go through new elections until next year at the soonest. And opinion polls the past few days, including one in the pro-Labor Jerusalem Post, show Labor would actually lose seats to Likud if a new vote were taken.
If what Mr. Begin stands for is unpopular, the man himself certainly is not. Recently he visited shellshocked Qiryat Shemona on the northern border and was greeted by cheering residents shouting, "Begin, king of Israel."
"He is a masterful politician," said a diplomat who has watched Begin for some years. "He knows how to be decisive and emotional. He is totally unselfconscious."
Begin has quite a lot of support in international affairs. In this field, the new government will be guided by the ruling triumvirate of Mr. Begin, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir. On the surface, this team gives the new government a hard-line glint, with no dissent likely on crucial decisions such as using the Israeli military.
Forces close to the Begin government say the main thrust of its Middle East policy will continue to be the Camp David agreement. This means:
* Mr. Begin will try to achieve a limited autonomy plan for the occupied territories before April 26, 1982, when Egypt takes control of the remainder of the Sinai Peninsula. Earlier this week, the United States, Egypt, and Israel signed an agreement establishing a multinational Sinai peacekeeping force.
* At the end of the five-year autonomy phase, if the mechanism fails, Israel would be in a position to attempt to annex Gaza and the West Bank, which Mr. Begin considers a biblically mandated part of Israel.
* New settlements on the West Bank probably will be fewer, but existing settlements will be thickened. At present, many settlements are barely populated. Mr. Sharon, as agriculture minister in the last government, was principal architect of the settlement policy.
There is no hint about how the new government will act in Lebanon. But the cease-fire of July 24 is still holding. Western diplomats say the Reagan administration's apparent desire to improve the Lebanese situation may force the Begin government to eliminate raids on the country so that a United States-United Nations-Saudi Arabian initiative can be tried. Mr. Begin may balk at first, says one observer, but pressure such as the withholding of F-16 jets seems to be h aving an effect on government thinking.