JERUSALEM (Feb. 24)
Premier Menachem Begin’s latest proposal for a national unity government drew no immediate response from Labor Party chairman Shimon Peres today. Peres, scheduled to address his party’s Central Committee tomorrow, is expected to make his position known at that time, after consultations with his Labor Alignment colleagues.
Begin’s offer, in a “Dear Shimon” letter to Peres, was made public on Israel Radio today. It followed Peres’ rejection of Begin’s proposal yesterday that Likud and Labor send a joint Knesset delegation to Washington to explain to the American Administration why Israel regards proposed U.S. sales of mobile air defense systems and F-16 jet fighters to Jordan to be an intolerable threat to its security.
Peres stated that while Labor appreciated the gravity of the threat, it would not be party to any move which suggested that it endorses the Begin government’s policies. He proposed instead that a delegation of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, which includes both coalition and opposition factions, go to Washington. That was turned down by Begin.
BEGIN’S LETTER TO PERES
In his letter to Peres, Begin expressed regret that the Labor Alignment rejected the idea of a joint parliamentary mission. “It is unclear to me why your friends should suspect that a parliamentary mission is a corridor for a national unity government,” Begin wrote. “I proposed, and I am still proposing, to form such a government. It is objectively possible to form it.”
Begin explained that after Peres announced in the Knesset that Labor supported the autonomy plan, there was a clear basis for cooperation in a national unity government, at least for the five year interim period during which autonomy would be in effect on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“We are prepared at any moment to engage in talks for that purpose,” Begin wrote. “Although I know that the Alignment Knesset faction decided to refuse even to negotiate this positive idea,” if the Alignment dropped its objections, he would invite Peres for immediate negotiations.
LABOR REACTS COOLY
Labor has endorsed autonomy in principle, but does not subscribe to the Begin government’s version of it. The immediate reaction to Begin’s letter within the Labor Alignment was cool, although some Labor hawks thought the idea was at least worth considering. Party Secretary Haim Barlev said he opposed the offer because of the wide differences between the two parties. A similar view was expressed by Mapam Secretary Victor Shem-Tov.
Former Foreign Minister Abba Eban, who speaks for Labor on foreign policy matters, charged that the only purpose of Begin’s letter was to split the Alignment and stifle opposition to Likud policies. Labor MK Chaim Herzog said he didn’t oppose the idea in principle but thought it was not feasible under the present political circumstances. One Labor hawk, Shlomo Hillel, said the offer was “not serious.”
But another, Shoshana Arbeli-Almoslino, thought the offer should at least be reviewed. Labor dove Yossi Sarid warned that if the Alignment “fell into Begin’s trap, ” nine of its Knesset members would quit the faction — himself, Shulamit Aloni and the seven Mapam MKs.
Most political observers believe Peres will respond negatively to Begin. The Labor Party leader has made it clear in the past that he would consider a national unity regime only in an emergency and that it would have to entail a major reshuffling of Cabinet posts.
Some pundits said today that if Labor did accept Begin’s offer, it would postpone joining the coalition until after Israel completes its withdrawal from Sinai on April 25. It would prefer to let the Likud government deal alone with the difficult problems of withdrawal, they said.