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Rabin Ready to Resign Unless Cabinet Ends Bickering

By Michael Parks
Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, fed up with the feuding that is tearing apart his coalition government only three months after it was formed, let it be known Thursday that he is ready to resign unless he gets the full support of all the parties in his Cabinet.

Rabin would not actually quit, but seek to form a new, more broadly based and stable government, according to members of his Labor Party. In the process, he would try to reduce his dependency on the present coalition's troublesome partners, the religious party Shas and the leftist Meretz bloc, by including other parties.

Such a move, however, would likely reorient the Cabinet politically from center-left to center-right -- in Israeli terms a significant shift -- and that, in turn, could reduce Israel's readiness to trade "land for peace" in the current negotiations with its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians.

Already this renewal of what Israelis ironically call the "Jewish wars" along the deep cleavage between religious and secular sectors is consuming virtually all of Rabin's energy and diverting the government's focus from both the peace talks and economic reconstruction.

But Rabin, according to Labor Party officials, feels that he has no choice -- the collapse of his last government, albeit 15 years ago, was due to the withdrawal of a religious party from the cabinet over what it saw as the desecration of the Jewish Sabbath.

"Rabin has had it with all this bickering," one longtime confidant said Thursday. "He has virtually concluded that it would be easier for him to resign, forcing this government out with him, and then to start building a coalition all over. ...

"Of course, it won't be the same coalition, its political complexion would be different, its goals would be different."

The ostensible cause of all this trouble is Shulamit Aloni, 63, a veteran civil rights campaigner whom Rabin appointed minister of education and culture to help secure Meretz's support in the Knesset, Israel's Parliament. With only 44 seats in the 120-member Knesset, the Labor Party needs partners, and the dovish Meretz bloc brings 12 votes.

Avowedly secularist and decidedly leftist, Aloni has been denounced by Israel's religious right as everything from a "Jezebel" and "a political harlot" to a "stinking offense against God" under Jewish law for her controversial remarks and a refusal to conform to a strict Orthodox Jewish lifestyle.

Aloni advocated the return of the whole Golan Heights to Syria as part of a peace treaty; she ridiculed Israeli schools for teaching children that the world was literally created in six days, as recorded in the Bible's Book of Genesis, and she suggested that "God" be dropped from prayers for soldiers in recognition of the widespread secularism in Israeli society.

She has also been pilloried in Israel's rightist and religious press for eating non-Kosher food on recent visits to Germany and France, for failing to observe the Jewish Sabbath as a day solely for prayer and family activities and for wearing dresses that showed her forearms and the calves of her legs.

"Shas cannot vote confidence in the government when the no-confidence motion is put on the matter of Shulamit Aloni," Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, the Shas leader, declared this week, acknowledging that Shas can no longer withstand the criticism from other religious parties for its participation in the coalition.

After the vote, Shas under Israeli law "will leave the coalition and the government can no longer exist in its present form," Deri said.

Deri is proposing a deal: If Aloni were replaced as education minister, Shas would stay in the coalition with its six Knesset seats, and the government would survive. He gave Rabin a deadline of Nov. 2, when the Aloni no-confidence vote would come up.

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This would maintain the government's present 62-seat majority, which is quite sufficient to govern -- along with the five Arab members who vote with the coalition -- but most likely it is not enough to approve major concessions to Syria or the Palestinians in the peace talks or to ratify an agreement.

Aloni's colleagues in Meretz have been unyielding, however, in insisting that the Labor Party adhere to the agreement it made to appoint her as education minister.

They say that they were fighting not just for their position in the government but for its center-left character, which would be lost if a rightist party or another religious party were brought into the coalition.

And they see Deri and Shas involved in a highly hypocritical game to preserve their hegemony over funds that go to religious institutions -- and to prevent Deri's possible indictment next month for misappropriation of public funds to finance Shas and perhaps his own expenses.

"Shas must be forced to climb down," Yossi Sarid, the Meretz leader, commented. "They have a minister in this government (Deri) who some said was not worthy of serving, but is doing so until he is indicted. Aloni has no indictment looming, and so there's no reason for her to vacate her seat."