JERUSALEM (Jun. 18)
The Cabinet, after meeting for nearly five hours today, voted 14-5 to reply to American questions on the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in a manner favored by Premier Menachem Begin. The Cabinet told the U.S. that Israel would be prepared only in five years for “the nature of the future relations between the parties” to be “considered and agreed upon.” (See full text.)
Defense Minister Ezer Weizman and the four ministers of the Democratic Movement for Change (DMC) opposed the formulation but 13 other ministers supported Begin. The questions, posed by the U.S. had sought a commitment from Israel to negotiate the permanent status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the five years of self-rule proposed by Begin expires. The U.S. also asked Israel how it intended to grant political self-expression to the Arab population of those territories.
The full text of the Cabinet’s reply was released here at 7 p.m. local time, after it had been transmitted to Washington. It is regarded as a for cry from the answers expected by the U.S. Both Weizman and the DMC had proposed a more positive response in which Israel would have agreed to a determination of the “permanent status” of the territories. Begin rejected this on grounds that it implied that Israel’s “self-rule” plan was not “permanent” but only a transitional status.
According to an Israel Radio report, Weizman expressed his anger and frustration in no uncertain terms both at the Cabinet table and after the session. Newsmen said he left the Cabinet room before any of the other ministers, looking somber. Begin, who left last, was smiling broadly.
DMC POSITION IN DOUBT
Deputy Premier Yigael Yadin, leader of the DMC, said later that his 15 Knesset members probably would abstain when the Cabinet’s decision is debated in the Knesset tomorrow. Many observers wondered whether some of the more dove-ish members of the DMC’s Knesset faction would vote against the government. The Cabinet’s decision is expected to strengthen the hand of DMC doves in the party’s crucial internal elections to be held in two weeks. They have been pressing the DMC to leave Begin’s Likud-led coalition.
The U.S. is known to believe that Israel’s reply is crucial to resumption of the stalled peace talks with Egypt. Even before the Cabinet’s decision was known, observers here predicted negative and even critical responses from Washington and Cairo if Israel’s answers turned out to be the product of a compromise between the hardliners and the moderates.
In the event, the Cabinet, though split, lined up behind the uncompromising position favored by Begin, which had been proposed at Monday’s Cabinet session by his close Herut associate, Minister-Without-Portfolio Haim Landau.
ATHERTON SAID U.S. HOPED FOR “POSITIVE” RESPONSE
(Speaking in Los Angeles Thursday, President Carter’s Ambassador-at-Large to the Middle East, Alfred L. Atherton, said the U.S. was looking forward to “positive” responses to the questions put to the Israel government. Addressing a conference on U.S. Mideast policy sponsored by the State Department in association with the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, Atherton said “We know these questions…require agonizingly difficult choices to be made. We hope, nonetheless, that Israel’s responses will be positive because we believe this offers perhaps the only possibility for renewing the momentum of the Egyptian-Israeli talks and ultimately, the overall Arab-Israeli negotiating process.”)