Like participants in a family feud, the leaders of Israel’s coalition government last week directed their unkindest cuts at each other. At issue was Foreign Minister Shimon Peres’s proposal for an international peace conference on the Middle East. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Peres’s partner in the 32-month-old national unity government, rejected the plan as “perverse and criminal”—an attempt to force Israel to give up the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. In a speech to legislators from his own
Likud bloc, Shamir declared, “Every remnant and vestige of this plan must be wiped off the discussion table.” Peres implied that Shamir was stirring up hatred and was guilty of “character assassination.” But none of the 10 members of the government’s inner cabinet changed his position. And after three days of pressurepacked meetings on the issue, the cabinet remained deadlocked 5 to 5 along party lines.
The cabinet stalemate was a clear defeat for Peres. And it appeared to signal the inevitable fall of the coalition. The next regular election is not due until November, 1988, but Peres had threatened to force early elections to decide the conference issue. However, he was unable to get the 61 votes in the 120-member Knesset needed to support his motion that the legislature disband. Frustrated members of Peres’s Labour Party demanded that Sha-
mir resign. But the prime minister, whose popularity rating has dropped to 36 per cent from 59 per cent a year ago, refused. And he asked the foreign ministry to inform Israeli embassies that Peres had lost the right to try to organize a peace conference.
Peres, however, insisted that he still had a “full mandate.” And his office took the extraordinary step of countermanding Shamir’s message—and instead sent out a cable to Israeli embassies saying that the government was still pursuing the peace conference ini-
tiative. At week’s end, Peres flew to the United States, where he planned to seek stronger support among American Jews and within the Reagan administration, which has already endorsed the conference proposal.
In fact, plans for the conference were laid out in secret talks in London last month between Peres and Jordan’s King Hussein, with help from U.S. special envoy Wat Cluverius. The initial talks would include the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China—and would lead to direct discussions among Israel, its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians. The Israelis agreed to Moscow’s participation on two conditions: that the Soviets restore diplomatic relations with Jerusalem, which they broke off after the Six Day War in 1967, and that they grant more exit permits to Soviet
Jews wishing to emigrate. Diplomatic sources in Washington also said that Jordan had agreed to limit the Soviets’ role to that of a bystander—a condition the Kremlin seemed unlikely to accept.
The Palestinians presented an even thornier issue. Under the Israel-Jordan agreement, delegates from Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) would not be seated at the conference unless they first renounced terrorism and recognized Israel’s right to exist. That seemed highly improbable. As a result, conference organizers would have to seek out more moderate Palestinian leaders, whose claims to represent their people would be dubious at best.
The proposed peace conference has excited many moderate and left-wing Israelis. Before the cabinet sessions last week, about 1,500 demonstrators marched through Jerusalem singing Give Peace a Chance. They were met by hundreds of right-wing counterdemonstrators, who had to be held back by riot police. Those passions seemed likely to remain high following the cabinet impasse, as Peres and Shamir took their cases to the people—and to smaller parties in the Knesset. One target is the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which at one stage last week appeared ready to switch its support from Likud to Labour. But its dovish leader, Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, could not carry his three parliamentary colleagues with him. Experts said that Labour was still about five votes short of being able to force early elections. But party officials placed the shortfall at two or three, and predicted that it would take about two weeks to marshal the needed 61 votes.
Meanwhile, the battleground on the weekend shifted to Washington. Yosef Ben Aharon, director-general of Shamir’s office, arrived there May 10 and promptly told White House officials that, as he explained it later, “the subject of an international conference is finished.” But Peres, before leaving on his U.S. trip and a scheduled meeting with Secretary of State George Shultz, said that he would “ask the United States what it suggests to keep the peace process alive.” He added: “This is a matter of life and death. It concerns the future of our children, both Jews and Arabs.” It also concerned the future of the Israeli coalition, which was so utterly divided—and seemed so likely doomed.
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