A recent Israeli Cabinet meeting degenerated into such a raucous exchange of insults that Prime Minister Shimon Peres went on national television to vow that it would never be allowed to happen again.
"Liar! Liar!" the health minister had shouted at the finance minister, who replied that he was sick of his colleague's "fat, self-satisfied face."
Their outburst could be explained in part by the fact that they are members of different political parties. But, in a later meeting, leaders of the same party were calling each other "Mafiosi."
Pact Binds Blocs
All this is part of what Benny Morris, a Jerusalem Post political writer, refers to as "pre-rotation fever." It is brought on by the agreement of September, 1984, which binds Israel's two largest political blocs in a so-called government of national unity.
Under the agreement, Prime Minister Peres, of the Labor Alignment, and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, of the Likud Bloc, are to switch, or rotate, posts on Oct. 14.
Since the agreement was struck, it has been conventional political wisdom that the unnatural alliance could not last that long. If the genuine ideological differences between the parties failed to do it, the analysts predicted, Labor would take advantage of Peres' growing popularity to break the coalition--by no later than this month--and force new elections.
Change in Diagnosis
Ironically, the outbreak of pre-rotation fever coincides with what appears to be a significant change in the diagnosis.
"I think more and more people are convinced that the rotation will take place," a Western diplomat said the other day.
Even some of the Labor officials most concerned about seeing another Likud prime minister say dejectedly that they see no better than a 50-50 chance for preventing the switch.
"My prediction is 60% for rotation," Labor's secretary general, Uzi Baram, said recently in an interview.
Labor stalwarts who see themselves slipping into a second-class role, out of the spotlight they have enjoyed with Peres as prime minister, are the principal victims of pre-rotation fever. But Likud officials are by no means immune. They agree that the political winds seem to be more favorable to them, but they are concerned that as the time for the switch draws nearer, Labor will grow more desperate about breaking the agreement.
Rivalry for Leadership
Also, Likud is still plagued by personal rivalry for the leadership. Former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Likud's founder, retired from public office more than two years ago, but he is still titular head of the bloc's dominant Herut faction. Shamir is the acting leader, and competition for the leadership is expected to intensify with the opening today of the Herut convention. It was in connection with the convention that rival Likud ministers exchanged the Mafia charges.
The prospect of the October changeover also affects the internal Likud battle, for there are those seeking a change in Likud leadership who believe that the way can be paved toward that goal, without playing into Labor's hands, by undermining Shamir before he can become prime minister.
It is said that at least one of Shamir's rivals, Industry and Trade Minister Ariel Sharon, might want to see the coalition collapse rather than have Shamir take over and use the prime minister's office as a platform from which to groom a successor as Likud leader. Shamir's choice for his successor is rumored to be Moshe Arens, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States who at present is minister without portfolio in the Cabinet.
Sharon's Strength Fading
Still, Sharon's political strength seems to be on the wane. "At this point, the winds in Herut are very definitely blowing against Sharon," a Likud source said.
Obviously, Shamir does not want to upset the rotation schedule, but there is growing pressure in the Labor Alignment for Peres to do it. Public opinion polls indicate that the centrist Labor Alignment would win 55 of the 120 seats in the Knesset (Parliament) if an election were held now, compared with 30 seats for the rightist Likud. Labor won 44 seats in the inconclusive election of July, 1984, that led to formation of the national unity government; Likud won 41.
There has been an extraordinary turnaround in the public perception of Peres, who used to be thought of as Israel's version of Richard Nixon, an able but not quite trustworthy leader.
"It's almost unheard of for a man in his fourth political decade to change his public image," said David Garth, an American political consultant who is a partner in an Israeli consulting firm. "Peres has done this."
Reneging Could Be Costly
Labor's problem is that if Peres is seen to be reneging on the rotation agreement, it could cost him and the party all they have gained.
No issue of principle strong enough to bring down the government has come up. For months, Labor strategists banked on the Middle East peace process to provide such an issue. Likud is committed to holding on to the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip, the lands Israel captured in the Six-Day War of 1967, while Labor's platform calls for trading at least some of this land for peace with Israel's Arab neighbors.
If exploratory maneuvers with Jordan's King Hussein progressed far enough, it was thought, this would force Israeli decisions that would shatter the coalition. But whatever promise of progress there seemed to be has all but disappeared in the last few weeks as the result of differences between Hussein and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Fell Into Economic Trap
Moreover, Labor has found itself in an economic trap, largely of its own making. A tough austerity program pushed through last July has proved to be far more successful in reducing inflation than most analysts thought possible. The situation had become so chaotic that in the coalition's first few months of government, prices were rising at an annual rate of more than 1,000%. But by January, the most recent month for which figures are available, prices were actually falling.
This has not been achieved without sacrifice.
As an aide close to Peres noted: "It so happens that most of those who suffer most from the consequences (of the austerity plan) share two characteristics. One, they're close to us politically, and two, they have thousands and thousands and thousands of employees in areas that are the most sensitive."
A number of companies in financial trouble are owned and operated by Histadrut, the trade union federation, which is affiliated with the Labor Alignment. The prime example is Solel Boneh, Israel's largest construction firm, which has 14,000 employees. Many of these employees live in underprivileged "development towns," which have proved to be political strongholds of Likud; under Peres, Labor has made a concerted effort to win them over.
Labor strategists fear that just about the time Likud takes over, the sacrifices experienced under Peres will pay off and the economy will start growing, leaving Likud to reap the political benefits.
To make matters worse, Labor made what in retrospect appears to have been a tactical mistake in the coalition agreement. Although Peres got to be prime minister for the first 25 months of the 50 months covered by the accord, and it was agreed that Labor's Yitzhak Rabin would be defense minister throughout the life of the agreement, Labor gave up all claim to any key economic post. The purse strings are in Likud hands.
Will Control Economy
According to Baram, the Labor secretary general, after Shamir becomes prime minister, "we'll be completely out of the picture," and Likud will have a virtually free hand to manipulate the economy for political gain.
The situation has given rise to one issue that still might prove to be a coalition-breaker. Peres has demanded formation of a new committee, with himself as chairman, to oversee an "economic growth" fund of several hundred million dollars. Actually, a major part of the money would go to rescue existing institutions that have fallen on hard times, several of them associated with the Labor party, rather than to open new economic opportunities.
"He wants to do a Chrysler," one Peres adviser said, referring to the U.S. government's rescue of the auto firm.
Likud opposes the idea, charging that Peres is trying to strip Likud Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai of some of his powers.
Peres said in a recent television interview that he intends to honor the rotation agreement but that he regards Israel's economic recovery as more important than the coalition. If necessary, he said, he will risk a government crisis in the interest of saving the economy.
The issue seems sure to spark more political fireworks, but it is far from certain that it will lead to the breakup of the government. Both major parties have agreed to postpone further discussion of the growth committee idea until after the Herut convention. Baram said he expects that eventually Likud will agree on a compromise.
In the meantime, Labor watches the days slip by. The closer the date for rotation approaches, the more any government crisis will seem to be a cynical move by Peres to renege on the coalition agreement.
Labor is also concerned that any new elections not be held in the summer, when Labor's generally better-off constituency goes abroad in numbers large enough to make a difference of three or four seats in the Knesset. There is no provision for absentee voting in Israel.
If the rotation goes through on schedule, some analysts speculate, Peres can break up the government soon afterward, before his name is forgotten. This is sometimes called the "quick kill" scenario.
But others, including Baram, think that, in the absence of some unforeseen crisis, Likud will retain enough support from the smaller parties for Shamir to serve his scheduled 25 months as prime minister.
"Rotation means elections on time, with the (Labor) alignment or without the alignment," Baram said.
Under the circumstances, the Jerusalem Post's Morris was taking little risk when he predicted that outbreaks of pre-rotation fever would "become more frequent and ugly as the October deadline for the switch . . . draws near."