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NEWS ANALYSIS : Israeli Labor Party Racked by Indecision

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the way to polishing its new platform, the opposition Labor Party, once an invincible force in politics here, voted to separate religion from government, a historic decision of much potential significance for Israel.

No sooner was the final vote taken at a party convention that ended Friday night than party leaders did what they do best and at the same time gave another example of why Labor has little chance of regaining power: They waffled.

“The resolution is merely decorative and not practical,” said Shimon Peres, party chief and symbol of Labor’s electoral failures over the last 14 years. He promised to have the measure overturned before the final platform is adopted at a future party meeting.

It was a classic performance by Peres, who is less known for his religious zeal than his devotion to wheeler-dealing and efforts to keep options open. To take a stand on separation of synagogue and state would risk offending religious parties that he might later seek out in hopes of forming a ruling coalition--if the Labor Party ever gets that close to a parliamentary plurality again.

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With a year to go before the next scheduled elections, the party of David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir appears to have reached a low ebb. Public opinion polls show a sharp decline in popularity. In one poll, it trails the ruling, rightist Likud Party of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir by more than 15 points. In the 1988 elections, Labor ran neck-and-neck with Likud.

The question of peace talks, Labor’s premier fighting issue and the one that most vividly distinguished it from Likud, has been taken from its hands. However reluctantly, Shamir is the person who has led the country into negotiations with Israel’s Arab adversaries. Labor, long an advocate of the kind of peace conference held in Madrid this month, is on the outside looking in.

Moreover, the party is paralyzed by a perpetual power struggle between Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, considered a more electable politician than Peres but one who has been unable to wrest the reins of party power from his rival. In the same public opinion surveys, Rabin runs a much closer second to Shamir than does Peres.

“We have just not been capable of a change of leadership,” said Shimon Shitreet, a Labor member of Parliament.

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The leadership struggle may be more a symptom than a cause of Labor’s decline. The party, which met to hammer out a preliminary platform for the elections, is suffering a deep identity crisis. After maintaining a tight grip on power since the founding of the state in 1948, the party has been unable to win an election outright since 1973 and has played second string to Likud since 1977, occasionally sharing power but often sitting in opposition.

Labor has difficulty shedding its unfashionable socialist past, a problem it has shared with leftist parties worldwide. At the start of the Labor convention, a controversy erupted over whether the party’s traditional red flag should be flown in the convention hall. Officially, it was not displayed, but a few dissidents hung a pair of the flags anyway.

During the three-day convention, held alternately in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Yossi Beilin, a young reformist, suggested that Labor sever its affiliation with Histadrut, the country’s giant trade union, so that the union and the pension and health benefits it disburses would be divorced from party politics.

“I warn you,” said Beilin in defeat, “if this goes on, we will have no choice but to become a satellite of Likud.”

The proposal to take civil matters such as divorce and marriage out of religious hands, and end government involvement in the enforcement of religious taboos, probably sealed Labor’s fate in the next election. In most past national elections, religious parties have held the balance of power, and now, even if the separation plank in Labor’s platform is ultimately junked, Labor has probably alienated potential religious allies.

On peace issues, the party convention edged closer to recognizing a Palestinian right to statehood by coming out in favor of “national rights”’ for Palestinians. It proposed surrendering at least some of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights in return for peace with its neighbors. The party also supported a freeze in the construction of Israeli settlements in the disputed territories.


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