"No matter how you look at it, we're now on the downslope toward elections, whether it's two years from now or six months from now. So both parties will start jockeying for position."
That is how one Israeli political commentator characterizes the situation as Israel's national unity government prepares to enter its second phase today under a new prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir.
Shamir is expected to be confirmed as prime minister by the Knesset (Parliament) today or Wednesday, completing a rotation of posts with Shimon Peres, who submitted his resignation Friday after heading the coalition government for 25 months. Shamir, until now foreign minister in the coalition Cabinet, heads the Likud Bloc; Peres, who will become foreign minister, is the Labor Alignment leader.
Shamir takes over what has, unexpectedly, turned into the most popular Israeli government in a generation, one that analysts in both parties say could be ruptured only at great political risk to the side seen as precipitating the collapse.
But, as the political commentator suggested, pressures within the coalition are bound to increase dramatically during Shamir's scheduled 25-month term, arising from rivalries both between the two blocs and inside of each of them. And despite the risks of new elections, there is widespread skepticism here that the pressures can be contained.
"People today have a tendency to think that elections will take place next spring, May or June, that (the government) can't last much beyond that," a senior Likud politician said, asking that he not be quoted by name. "Even in the party, people don't think Shamir will be able to run the coalition, and Labor will have no reason to keep the coalition for two years."
Remote External Threat
The government also faces an external threat, though it is considered remote by most observers. This would arise from an agreement by Jordan and what Peres has called "authentic Palestinians" to open peace negotiations with Israel, either directly or under some international umbrella.
Labor and Likud are deeply and, apparently, irreparably divided over what would inevitably be the central issue in such talks--the future of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Peres and Shamir have both said that the coalition could not survive a real breakthrough in the Middle East stand-off.
Even under normal circumstances, however, it has repeatedly been proven that it takes no such weighty issue to bring an Israeli government to its knees. One fell because American warplanes destined for the Israeli air force were allowed to land on the Sabbath. Another collapsed because the prime minister's wife had an illegal American bank account.
As Shamir takes over, circumstances are far from normal. For one thing, Peres' Labor Alignment appears to have little to gain from the continued existence of the national unity government and much to lose.
Much of the credit for the coalition's success to date has inevitably gone to Peres, as prime minister, and to his party. And many of his Labor associates and officials whose jobs depended on his being prime minister fear that those political gains will disappear in the months ahead as the public gets used to Shamir.
Even worse, some anticipate that the economic austerity imposed in the past two years will pay off in future economic growth that could boost Shamir and Likud at the polls.
It is a situation ripe for sniping between the parties. Labor's acerbic former foreign minister, Abba Eban, has already called Shamir's elevation "the tunnel at the end of the light." And that was before the rotation.
Also, the relationship between Peres and Shamir is expected to get much more complicated in the months ahead. The news media-shy Shamir has said that he has sometimes had to grit his teeth, yet he has stayed very much in Peres' shadow during the last two years.
The image-conscious Peres, by contrast, has made it clear that he intends to remain a full, public partner after the rotation, continuing and even stepping up the pace of his initiatives from the foreign minister's office.
"It will be cause for tension," a Likud member of Parliament, Eliyahu Ben-Elissar, said in an interview.
There is also speculation that the rotation may trigger renewed rivalry within the Labor Alignment, between Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The two called a truce in their long-running feud during the negotiations that established the national unity government. But they are potential opponents in a contest for the party leadership before the next general elections, and a renewal of their political skirmish could destabilize the whole government.
System of Lists
In the Israeli system, voters cast their ballots for a party list rather than for individuals. After a general election, the nation's president traditionally gives the leader of the party winning the most votes the opportunity to form a government and become prime minister.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the post-rotation coalition, however, is bitter competition for the leadership of Likud's dominant Herut faction.
Shamir, who will be 71 Wednesday, faces a challenge from two younger, more charismatic politicians--Industry Minister Ariel Sharon, 58, and Housing Minister David Levy, 48. Israelis were given an idea of how bitter the struggle may become when Herut's nationally televised convention collapsed last March in a chair-throwing melee.
The cameras were rolling as Shamir at one point had to be escorted from the convention hall with delegates shouting at him: "Old man, go home!"
No New Date
The convention has yet to be reconvened. The breakup took place at a time when Sharon and Levy were considered to be holding their fire to avoid disrupting fulfillment of the rotation accord, which required Shamir to remain head of his party. To have been seen as robbing Likud of its chance to lead the national unity government could have been fatal to Herut.
Once the rotation is complete, Sharon and Levy are expected to begin maneuvering in earnest for a run at the party leadership. For Sharon, considered the most hawkish of the senior Likud politicians, and Levy, a Moroccan-born populist with a large following among Israelis of Sephardic (North African and Middle East) origins, that is expected to mean pushing positions favored by the religious and nationalistic Israeli right.