A year ago today, when the champagne corks popped in Israel's parliament building over the formation of the new "national unity" government, the sounds of gaiety only feebly competed with the cynical laughter of the skeptics.
How could this strange political aberration last more than a few months? it was asked. How could the coalition bridge the wide ideological gulf separating the two equal partners -- the Labor Party and the Likud bloc -- that had spawned a decade of bitter rivalry between the two?
After four months of the arrangement, Cabinet minister Ezer Weizman told a confidant, "In my opinion this government will last until Independence Day April 25 or thereabouts. No one will give it any longer than that."
Some political analysts even had questioned whether the Labor faction would hold together, or whether it would succumb to infighting between archrivals Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
But the fragile governing coalition that emerged from the near-draw July 1984 election has held together for a year now despite headlines in the Israeli newspapers that almost daily banner a Cabinet "crisis" that seems to evaporate overnight like a rain puddle in the Judean desert.
The national unity government is still shaky, to be sure, and even cautious political experts say that the implacable ideological confrontation between Labor and Likud over core issues could unravel it at any time.
Similarly, the coalition could collapse if either side perceived a sudden shift in the mood of the electorate and decided to gamble on a parliamentary election. Many Israelis recall the fall of Rabin's government in 1976 following a welcoming ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport for U.S.-supplied F16 fighters that the religious parties charged had desecrated the Sabbath.
But for the moment, the most informed political analysts here agree, Peres has established himself solidly as the dominant figure in Israeli politics, outmaneuvering his rival and coalition partner, Yitzhak Shamir, and putting himself in a position -- barring the unforeseeable -- to lead the government for another year.
Independent pollsters and political strategists in Peres' camp concede that the prime minister's personal popularity -- recent personal preference polls give him 47 percent to 6 percent for Shamir -- has not been translated into popularity for the Labor Party yet and that an election today probably would produce a deadlock like the one in last year's national balloting.
Peres, whose political career had been written off so often, is plainly pleased by his own rise in popularity. But he maintains that it counts for little because landslides are impossible to attain now in Israel, and with the country's multiparty system, fragile coalitions of numerous partners are inevitable.
In an interview on the first year of his stewardship, Peres nevertheless dwelled thoughtfully on the shifting public perception of his leadership qualities -- from those of an astute but opportunistic backroom politician to the attributes of a respected statesman and national leader.
"In my own thinking, a political experience is not just a competition between two parties," Peres said with a seeming sincerity that two years ago might have invoked incredulity even among supporters. "You don't go to elections because you have a chance to win or lose."
"I think the chances of the party are influenced very much by the way you are being perceived by your own people. Are you serving the country or are you serving the party? This is the major issue, and in my own consideration the first question is what is good for the people, what is good for the nation, not what is good for the party," Peres said.
"Never forget that the party is a means of achieving national goals, and the minute you forget it, people resent it. So in my place, where I'm sitting today, I must think in national terms and not in partisan terms. And I must ask first of all what is good for the country, and only then to consider party considerations."
Peres appeared sensitive to criticism that he has failed to give the country moral leadership.
"I think we do," he protested. "I mean, from having an imaginary economy -- wastefulness -- we brought truth and honesty to the people. If we gained in popularity, it is not because we spent more money. On the contrary, it is because we asked for a tightening of the belt. I think that's a moral voice, not just economical. I think ending the war in Lebanon was a very clear moral code . . . I think our attempt to bring peace by any possible way is again a moral code."
Indeed, much of his recent gain in popularity, public opinion analysts say, comes from a Peres economic recovery plan that sharply reduced consumer spending power. The public sees Peres as the first Israeli prime minister willing to make the hard choices necessary for real economic reform, political analysts say.
While the voters appear to have accepted austerity for now, some economists say that the test will come in the next few months, when workers' paychecks no longer will include stopgap government supplements. Salaries in the public sector have fallen by about 40 percent since the first of the year, but much of this was cushioned by special compensation rebates.
Housing Minister David Levy and Industry Minister Ariel Sharon both have warned of labor unrest once the real effects of austerity are felt. Peres dismissed the concern, saying, "A few months ago they said the test will be in a few months."
There are other potential pitfalls ahead for Peres' government.
As he pursues a comprehensive Middle East peace through the proposed joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, he is certain to face vocal opposition by one of the Likud's principal constituencies, the movement of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Since Peres has been deliberately vague on the question of territorial concessions, the settlers are particularly chary about the peace process, and are likely to resort to direct action against any peace agreement preventing them from realizing their goal of redeeming land to which they claim a biblical right.