Peres assigns top roles in Cabinet to next generation

JERUSALEM — Israeli political life jumped a generation this week as incoming Prime Minister Shimon Peres appointed two relatively young ministers to top posts in his Cabinet.

Ehud Barak, 53, the former chief of staff, is to be foreign minister in the new government, and Haim Ramon, 45, will serve as minister of interior.

Both men will be members of the "inner Cabinet" and will be closely involved in the peace process with the Palestinians and with Syria. Peres will hold the Defense Ministry himself, in the tradition of his mentor, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, and of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The new team was sworn in at the Knesset Wednesday, with the Likud and most other opposition parties abstaining or absenting themselves from the vote of confidence in a gesture of national solidarity following the Nov. 4 assassination of Rabin.

Peres' new government was ratified overwhelmingly Wednesday, and Peres was sworn in as Israel's 12th prime minister.

Intense and hopeful talks between Labor and the National Religious Party Tuesday triggered a mini-crisis with Labor's leftist-secularist coalition partner, Meretz.

At one point, Yossi Sarid of Meretz lashed out publicly at Labor's Yossi Beilin, minister of economic planning, who is moving to a special non-Cabinet post in the Prime Minister's Office. Beilin is handling the talks with the religious parties.

The flap subsided after Peres penned a formal assurance that support for any future religious legislation would require the consent of all the coalition partners.

The Orthodox parties are pressing for legislation to counter the effects of a recent High Court ruling that opens the way for non-Orthodox conversions in Israel. Such conversions carried out abroad have long been recognized under Israeli law, following a High Court ruling in 1989. But they have not been permitted in Israel and the Orthodox say they want legislation that would preserve the "status quo."

Pending the possible rise of an Orthodox party, the coalition comprises three factions: Labor, Meretz and Yi'ud. It also enjoys the consistent support of two largely Arab factions, the Arab Democratic Party and Hadash, giving Peres a total of 63 votes of support in the 120-seat chamber.

The new government's policy platform — a legal requirement under Israeli constitutional law — is almost a carbon copy of the Rabin government's platform, with its accent on the pursuit of peace.

The new document, however, adds a pledge to conduct a dialogue with the settlers, something the Rabin government was often criticized for failing to do.

In that vein, members of the Labor Party Knesset caucus led by Raanan Cohen met Tuesday with representatives from Jewish settlements. Both sides described the meeting as useful and said contact would continue. Members of the Labor caucus are scheduled to tour Jewish settlements next month.

Peres' elevation of younger men to prominent positions has come at the expense of several middle-aged hopefuls.

Among them are Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Tourism Minister Uzi Baram, Labor and Welfare Minister Ora Namir, Finance Minister Avraham Shochat and Police Minister Moshe Shahal, all of whom are staying in the Cabinet.

Most openly smarting from being passed over was Shahal, who threatened to resign Tuesday and return to his large law practice in Haifa. He told reporters he had never really wanted to be police minister in the first place. He reportedly lobbied hard for the interior or foreign affairs portfolios.

In the end he made do with what Peres announced to the party as a new "ministry of internal security" that would embrace, according to the prime minister, significantly more responsibilities than just the police.

Israeli media reported, however, that Peres has refused to hand over to Shahal responsibility for the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency. This has been in the personal purview of the prime minister since the creation of the state.

Shahal, according to these reports, will have responsibility for the army's home front command, which includes civil defense forces in times of peace and war.

One Labor minister who dug in his heels and has won, at least thus far, is Shimon Shetreet, the reformist-minded minister of religious affairs. Despite strong pressure from the Orthodox parties, which have opposed Shetreet's vigorous shake-up of the religious affairs ministry bureaucracy, Peres has kept him in place, though he would presumably be shifted if an Orthodox party actually joined the Cabinet.

One completely new face in the Cabinet is Rabbi Yehuda Amital, head of the Har Etzion yeshiva at Alon Shvut, near Bethlehem, and leader of the moderate-Orthodox movement, Meimad, which is not represented in the Knesset.

Meimad, which unsuccessfully ran for the Knesset in the past, supports territorial concessions.

Amital is to be a minister without portfolio. His responsibilities will include maintaining the government's dialogue with the settlers, and also with Jewish communities in the diaspora. Peres is increasingly aware of and concerned by the spillover of Israeli political divisions into diaspora Jewish life.

The new Cabinet will have one less ministry than the old: The Ministry of Economic Planning is to be split up among other departments. Its current minister, Yossi Beilin, will become a minister without portfolio working in the prime minister's office.

In practice, Beilin will be Peres' senior point man in the peace process. The arrangement underscores the fact that regardless of changes in the new Cabinet, the man closest to Peres, personally and politically, remains Beilin, his aide of 18 years.