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Behind the Headlines Begin Seeks Cabinet Consensus on Replies to American Questions

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Premier Menachem Begin is urgently seeking a broad consensus in his Cabinet on the formulation of Israel’s replies to the American questions on the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Cabinet meeting Monday ended inconclusively with the ministers sharply split between hardliners who want to yield nothing and moderates who believe that only some display of flexibility will be acceptable to Washington.

The Cabinet will meet Sunday in an all-out effort to reach agreement. Begin is clearly anxious to achieve a consensus before the Cabinet meets again. Intensive behind the scenes consultations were underway between and within the various factions.

The questions posed by the United states require Israel to state whether it is willing to consider the future status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the five-year period of “self-rule” proposed by Begin expires and how it intends to give the Palestinian inhabitants of those territories a voice in determining their future.

At Monday’s session, the hardline view was presented by Minister-Without-Portfolio Haim Landau, a long time Herut aide to Begin and one of his closest political and personal associates. Landau argued that Israel should stick closely to Begin’s original self-rule plan that deliberately leaves the sovereignty issue open and pledges only to review all issues in five years’ time. Landau wants Israel to tell the U.S. flatly that it can make no final commitment until “self-rule” has been in force for five years and its effects on the local populace can be evaluated.

In effect, Landau recommended a negative response that would be incompatible with the underlying purpose of the American questions, namely to underline the transitional nature of Begin’s “self-rule” proposal. Landau’s approach was backed by Minister of Commerce Yigael Hurwitz of Likue’s La’am (State List) Faction and Energy Minister Yitzhak Modai of Likud’s Liberal Party wing. He is believed to have the support of other Herut and Likud ministers.

DAYAN, WEIZMAN WANT POSITIVE REPLY

Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Defense Minister Ezer Weizman each proposed a more positive reply by Israel but they differed over where the emphasis should be. Weizman’s was the more “doveish” proposal. He stressed the urgent need for the resumption of direct negotiations with Egypt rather than the present dialogue via Washington and dwelt on Egypt’s important role in a future final settlement of the West Bank and, especially, the Gaza Strip issues. He appears to believe, as do the Americans, that only a positive reply by Israel indicating flexibility and a willingness to compromise, could lead to a resumption of the stalled peace talks with Egypt.

Weizman also recommended that Israel accept Washington’s unofficial proposal that, with respect to political self-expression for the Palestinians, it agree to eventual quadripartite talks between Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the local Palestinians. He stressed that agreement would have to be by consensus, obviating the possibility that Israel would be outvoted by the three Arab participants or forced to agree to concessions in later years that it does not want to make.

Dayan differed from Weizman in that he stressed a Jordanian rather than Egyptian role not only on the West Bank but in the Gaza Strip where he would prefer Jordanian to Egyptian influence. Dayan envisioned co-existence with Jordan on the West Bank whereby Amman would have a greater role in the political and administrative affairs of the local populace while Israel retained its control over security in the territory.

DMC SUPPORTS WEIZMAN

It was clear at this week’s Cabinet meeting, that Weizman’s approach would be supported by the four ministers of the Democratic Movement for Change (DMC). They indicated that while they had formulations of their own to propose, they could go along with Weizman’s views. The Defense Minister also had reason to hope for the backing of at least some of the three National Religious Party (NRP) ministers and from Finance Minister Simcha Ehrlich and Housing Minister Gideon Patt, both of Likud’s Liberal Party wing.

Begin has deliberately refrained from stating officially which position he supports. But it is well known that by temperament and ideology he is inclined to favor Landau’s uncompromising approach. It is clear that if Begin were to find himself on the minority side of the issues when the Cabinet reconvenes, his future authority over government policymaking would be gravely jeopardized. He is, therefore, expected to try to “finesse” a consensus or large majority around some compromise formula. Some pundits speculated that Begin would fall in with Weizman’s ideas but would try to modify and stiffen them before a final reply to the U.S. is drafted.

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