News Analysis: Could crisis give birth to national unity government

TEL AVIV — This week's suicide bombings here and in Jerusalem came as public opinion polls showed a shrinking gap in the race for the premiership between Israel Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

When Peres arrived to survey the sites of the attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, he was jeered by crowds shouting anti-government and anti-Arab slogans.

On Sunday, and Monday, calls were voiced for the creation of a national unity government, comprising both the Labor Party of Peres and Netanyahu's opposition Likud Party.

But with elections less than three months off and Peres' popularity rating dropping like lead, the Likud, understandably, is reluctant to join the current government.

Peres is said to be prepared to add several Likud ministers to his government — on the condition that the Likud agrees to postpone the national elections, recently advanced at Peres' own initiative from October to May 29.

Within Labor itself, key ministers are thought to be urging Peres to hand the Ministry of Defense, which he heads, over to Foreign Minister Ehud Barak, who, until a year ago, was the Israel Defense Force chief of staff.

The historical analogy of the period preceding the 1967 Six Day War is in many people's minds.

At that time, Peres himself, then secretary general of the opposition Rafi Party, pressed for Labor Prime Minister and Defense Minister Levi Eshkol to add both the Rafi and Herut — the forerunner of today's Likud — parties to his government.

Eventually Eshkol succumbed — and Rafi leader Moshe Dayan became minister of defense, taking much of the credit for the triumphal victory that followed.

Whether Peres, almost 30 years later, is now prepared to offer any political opportunities to Netanyahu is unclear.

Peres would only say, at a Monday night news conference, that he had not heard such reports and was concentrating exclusively on the operational issues at hand.

But these pressures are likely to grow in the days ahead — because the "all-out war" that Israel declared this week on Hamas does not look like a short one.