Weizman’s Resignation Casts Shadow over Likud-led Government Coalition

The resignation of Defense Minister Ezer Weizman yesterday cast a shadow over the future of Premier Menachem Begin’s Likud-led coalition government But while the extent of the political fall-out at home and abroad remains to be measured, the consensus in political circles today was that the government is in no immediate danger.

Weizman will hand Begin his official letter of resignation today but will remain in office for another day. He chaired a meeting of the General Headquarters Staff officers this morning to render a final report on the military situation. Afterwards he had an emotional farewell meeting with his army colleagues.

Weizman’s not unexpected departure was generally welcomed by hard-liners who resented his frequent public criticism of government policies, especially with regard to West Bank settlements. It was deplored by moderate elements in the Cabinet and Knesset who regarded Weizman as a force for moderation in dealing with the Palestinian issue and an asset in the normalization of relations with Egypt.

There was no official reaction from Caim but Egyptian Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali expressed his personal regrets. (See separate story.)

BATTLE LOOMS BETWEEN HAWKS, DOVES

A battle loomed between Cabinet hawks and doves over Weizman’s possible successor. But the first political casualty to Likud was a relatively minor one–the announcement by MK Hillel Seidel, a farmer Laborite, that he would soon leave the coalition. This will reduce Begin’s Knesset majority to 63 seats, still a sufficient margin to function effectively.

Weizman informed Begin of his intention to quit before yesterday’s weekly Cabinet session. He announced his resignation in a brief speech to his Cabinet colleagues and left immediately for the Defense Ministry offices in Tel Aviv to clear out his personal effects. Begin is expected to fill the defense post for the time being as he did the Foreign Ministry following the resignation of Moshe Dayan last October.

Weizman had threatened to resign on several occasions in policy disputes with Begin and other ministers. His most recent altercation was with Finance Minister Yigal Hurwitz over the latter’s proposal to freeze the budget at its present level — a move approved by the economic cabinet last week — which would require cuts in defense expenditures.

REASONS FOR RESIGNATION

But he told his colleagues yesterday that while this was the immediate issue it was not the sole reason for his resignation. He made it clear that his decision grew out of cumulative dissatisfaction and frustration with the government. In fact, Weizman, in his peroration, lashed out at the government’s performance in general, noting that yerida (emigration) is running ahead of immigration, inflation is sky rocketing, policy on the economic front seemed arbitrary and improvised rather than planned and relations with the U.S. were suffering because of government policies.

Weizman also delivered a bitter attack on Hurwitz and his economic policies. The Israel Defense force is stronger than any government, he said and would survive the injuries inflicted on it by such as Hurwitz. He accused the Finance Minister of trying to disguise his own failures by blaming the defense establishment for the country’s economic woes. Despite the government’s efforts, the army is strong, he said. He noted that the exports of military industries netted $650 million this year and is expected to earn over $1 billion next year.

It has been an open secret for many months that Weizman was becoming increasingly disenchanted with Begin’s policy toward the autonomy talks with Egypt and the U.S. In fact he had little to do with them until the ill-fated round of talks of ‘Herzliya two weeks ago, after which President Anwar Sadat summarily suspended the negotiations.

In unguarded moments — of which there have been more than a few of late — Weizman spoke disparagingly of the government as a whole and of several ministers in particular. He was said to feel that the Cabinet did not sufficiently value the peace with Egypt and that its policy thinking was not sufficiently influenced by the need to build and preserve the peace. Many of Weizman’s remarks, reported in the press, drew the wrath at Likud Stalwarts, especially those in his own Herut faction.

WEIZMAN UNDER FIRE

The most stinging comment on Weizman’s resignation was made by Hurwitz after yesterday’s Cabinet meeting. He accused the Defense Minister of “practically expressing non-confidence in the government of which he was a member” and likened him to “a tenant who strikes his neighbor. This is an unbearable situation. Ezer could not be a member of the Cabinet and attack it at the same time, condemn it, mock it, joke about it … With all regret, I can live with his resignation,” Hurwitz said.

Haim Kaufman, chairman of the Herut Knesset factions, spoke in a similar vein. “Ezer could not face the pressures of Israeli politics,” he said. “He has a different style of work, a different direction, and I believe it was very difficult for him to be a part of the leading team …. I would like to see Ezer Weizman as Defense Minister of Israel without trying to be the Prime Minister of the same time, Kaufman said.

Education Minister Zevulun Hammer of the National Religious Party, expressed the view that Weizman’s resignation was unnecessary especially as it came before the full Cabinet reached a decision on the budget freeze to which he objected.

Deputy Premier Yigael Yadin, leader of the Democratic Movement on the other hand, felt the crisis could not have been avoided. The matter was “much more complicated than it seemed,” he said. Justice Minister Shmuel Tamir, the No. 2 man in the DM, declared, “I’m sorry that he resigned. Obviously a government without Weizman is not a government with him.”

Haim Kaufman, chairman of the Likud coalition, admitted that Weizman’s resignation weakened the government but observed that “the moment of truth between Weizman and Likud had to come. We now must heal the wounds and get to work.

Former Foreign Minister Abba Eban, a Labor MK, predicted that the government would fall as a result of Weizman’s resignation. That view was shared by a few others in opposition ranks, but not in the coalition.

Labor MK Yossi Sarid said Weizman’s departure mode early elections more likely. Shulamit Aloni of the Civil Rights Movement, claimed it was the final nail in the coffin of the Begin government. But MK Shlomo Lorincz of the Aguda faction, said his party would stay in the coalition. “The government could not have continued to function with Weizman undermining its authority,” he said.

NOT THE END OF POLITICAL ACTIVITIES

According to political sources, Weizman will keep his Knesset seat — to which he was elected on the Herut ticket — for the time being. But eventually, he is expected to retire to private life and await a different political constellation where his popularity and leadership talents could find new expression, the sources said.

Weizman himself made it clear last night that his resignation did not mean the end of his political activities. Speaking in the parlance of a veteran combat pilot, he told reporters, “This is a touch-down for refueling and rearmament and then to take off once again.” The question remained, in which direction he would take off.

He has reportedly expressed willingness to serve as Defense Minister in a Labor-led government headed by Shimon Peres. Peres, chairman of the Labor Party, has not foreclosed that possibility. But much depends on the public reaction to Weizman’s resignation in the days ahead.

If the ripples are small and the reactions undramatic the implication will be that the former fighter pilot and Air Force commander does. not have a solid political constituency. If, on the other hand, his departure triggers massive expressions of regret and seriously weakens the government, he will have proven a political force to be reckoned with despite his lack of support in the Herut party machine.

STRUGGLE OVER REPLACEMENT

Meanwhile, the threat to the Begin regime comes from the possibility of a destructive struggle within his coalition over who will replace Weizman. Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, a Herut hard-liner, is known to see himself as a suitable candidate for the post of Defense Minister in view of his extensive military experience.

But the Liberal Party wing of Likud and the Democratic Movement have said in the past that Sharon is not acceptable to them. In the after-moth of Weizman’s resignation, spokesmen for both parties said the possibility of Sharon as his successor created “a new situation” but that they would “consult” before adopting a firm position.

Korfu, as coalition chairman, rejected hints from the Liberals that they would like to see one of their own members in the defense slot. He also rejected an implied ultimatum from the DM not to appoint Sharon. “If the Premier finds Arik (Sharon) suitable for the job, there is no reason why he should not get it. His views are irrelevant because policy is determined by the Premier, Korfu said. Sharon himself has refused to comment.

A group of Herut members, including several from Sharon’s former Shlom Zion movement, have set up a committee to press for the appointment of Sharon as the new Defense Minister. The committee has already sent telegrams to all Knesset members urging their support.

Another candidate frequently mentioned is Moshe Arens, chairman of the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Security Committee. An outspoken Herut hawk, he opposed the Camp David agreements and the peace treaty with Egypt on grounds that Israel’s tangible concessions — the return of Sinai — were not matched by Egyptian concessions.

Meanwhile, a third candidate entered the field. Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Zipori, who is required by law to tender his resignation along with his chief’s, has reportedly claimed that he has the same qualifications as Arens or anyone else for the post. Zipori is expected to be asked by Begin to continue to serve as Deputy Defense Minister until a new Defense Minister is appointed.

Herut insiders indicated that a decision on Weizman’s replacement will not be made quickly. Begin waited until March to name Yitzhak Shamir–another hard-liner–to the past of foreign Minister which Dayan had vacated the previous October.

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