The current round of coalition negotiations between the right-wing Likud Party and the centrist, comparatively dovish Democratic Movement for Change ended today with no indication that the two have been able to bridge their differences.
Likud's leader, Menachem Begin, told reporters nonetheless that he hopes to form a new government before June 28, implying that he is prepared to govern with a narrow, conservative Cabinet.
The two parties differ mainly over policies concerning the occupied territories. Likud sources said, however, that Likud might leave some Cabinet seats open in case the Democratc Movement decides to join later.
The Democratic Movement's leader, YigaelYadin, said that the final decision as to whether to continue negotiations or join the opposition would be made after a debate by party officials. A final decision is expected early next week, but very little optimism was expressed by the party's leaders today.
"They seem to want us in on their terms," said Eli Eyal, a member of the party's secretariat. Likud, he said, seems to want the Democratic Movement as a "decoration" rather than as a partner.
It would be ironic, in a secular age, if the fate of Israel's new government were to be decided by the Orthodox, otherwordly rabbis with flowing beards called "the Council of Torah Sages." Yet yesterday's decision of the 13 "sages," ranging in age from 65 to 80, to allow the ultra-Orthodox religious party, Agudat Yisrael, to join a Likud-led coalition gave Begin the necessary margin to form a government without the Democratic Movement - at least on paper.
Agudat Yisrael, which was unable to join Begin's coalition without the permission of the council, won only four parliamentary seats in the election last month. Added to Likud's 45 and the National Religious Party's 12, however, Agudat's four bring the total to 61- the minimum necessary to rule in a Parliament of 120 members. Moshe Dayan, who defected from the Labor party, and one other religious member would bring the total to 63.
Begin knows, however, that it will be very difficult to rule with such a slender majority and that there is a large segment of the country - some within his own party - that will object strongly to the kind of nationalistic government that would result from a narrow coalition with the religious parties on Likud's right flank.
The primary stumbling block in the way of a more broadly based coalition that would include the 15 parliamentary members of the Democratic Movement appears to be the issue of Jewis settlements on the occupied West Bank. Likud is willing to limit settlements to those approved by the government but the Democratic Movement, realizing that it would be in a minority, wants what amounts to veto powers.
The Democratic Movement also fears that Likud's stand against surrendering territory on the West Bank will hinder peace negotiations and it wants some commitment to compromise and to make territorial concessions. Likud, however, thinks it enough to promise to go to Geneva on the basis of U.N. Resolution 242, which calls for Israeli withdrawal but does not specify from which territories.
At today's negotiating session, Begin told Yadin that Moshe Dayan was still Likud's choice for foreign minister - a post the Democratic Movement would like for one of its own to influence policy.
The National Religious Party favors more Jewis settlements on the West Bank but, having been part of the labor government's coalitions for many years, is used to the give-and-take of parliamentary politics.
The more Orthodox Agudat Yisrael, however, has not been partof a government for many years and is more dogmatic about fundamental religious issues. It is demanding a high price for its cooperation to bring Israel more in line with what it considers holy law and traditional Jewish values.
Agudat wants repeal of recent laws that liberalized abortion. High on Agudat's list of demands, Rabbi Menachem Porush, the party secretary, said, is more liberal exemption of women from military service for religious reasons. Women who want to be excused from military duty for religious reasons are now subject to scrutiny. Agudat wants the scrutiny ended so that a simple statment will obtain an exemption. More than 25 per cent of the armed forces of Israel are women.
Although the Council of Torah Sages gave Agudat's four parliamentary members permission to join Begins's coalition if their demands are met, the sages nonetheless forbade them to become Cabinet ministers or deputy ministers. This is because the sages did not want Agudat to share in the "collective responsibility" of a government that would permit television and airplane flights on the Sabbath and other things the sages consider Godless.