JERUSALEM (Mar. 5)
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s peace initiative, although still to be formally and officially explicated, has triggered a bitter partisan battle between the Labor and Likud components of the unity coalition government.
Likud has been on the offensive since Premier Shimon Peres and several fellow ministers met in Jerusalem last week with Ossama El-Baz, a personal emissary of Mubarak. According to Likud, Peres and his associates were naively taken in by the Egyptian President whose recent proposals were intended solely to impress U.S. public opinion in advance of his meeting with President Reagan in Washington March 12.
Today, Peres shot back, accusing Likud of being afraid to talk peace. The Premier spoke at a meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee. Yesterday, while visiting Eilat, he insisted there was merit to the Egyptian plan, though he made it clear that Israel would not buy all of it. Deputy Premier David Levy, considered by many the future leader of Likud’s Herut faction, claimed today that Likud saved Israel from the perils inherent in Cairo’s diplomatic demarche. According to Levy, that danger was an American dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization in the guise of a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to Washington.
This was the real aim of the Mubarak initiative, Levy contended, and because the Labor Party, principally Peres, was so anxious for negotiations, it was “blinded” to realities. Fortunately, said Levy, the Likud partners in the national unity government acted to foil Mubarak’s scheme.
Peres’ counter-attack today was directed largely at former Defense Minister Moshe Arens, a Herut hardliner who is presently a Minister-Without-Portfolio. Arens “sat in” on the meeting with El-Baz in the absence of Deputy Premier and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the Herut leader who was visiting Europe last week. It was Arens who initially heaped scorn on the meeting, telling his Likud colleagues afterwards that there had been no advance preparation and that two other participants, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Ezer Weizman, a Minister-Without-Portfolio attached to the Prime Minister’s Office as liaison with Israel’s Arab community, had “drifted” away from the guidelines which delineate the unity coalition government’s policies.
ARENS CLAIMS HE STOPPED “DRIFT”
Arens said he had to intervene several times to correct the “drift.” He accused Rabin, a Laborite, and Weizman, head of the new Yahad faction, of having intimated to the Egyptian emissary that the Camp David accords would be Israel’s “opening position” in any negotiations but need not be binding as the talks progressed. Arens said he had to remonstrate that the coalition pact specified unequivocally that the Camp David framework is basic to the government’s policy.
Peres referred today to “a certain minister” — obviously Arens — who he said “remained consistent” in his opposition to Israel’s peace with Egypt. “This minister had opposed the original peace negotiations and the Camp David accords and he is opposed to the resuscitation of the peace process now,” Peres declared. Arens, who was at the time chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, voted against the Camp David agreements in 1978 and against the Israel-Egyptian peace treaty in 1979.
Peres said he wondered why “a shudder seems to go up the spines of some Likud members” at the prospect of some progress in the peace process. “Whom are we afraid of?” the Premier asked.
He said that in a private conversation he had with El-Baz prior to their meeting with the other ministers, the Egyptian said his country is aware that many Israelis suspected Mubarak’s initiative was a public relations stunt. Peres said El-Baz, who is chief of staff of the Presidential Office in Cairo and one of Mubarak’s closest advisors, sought to convince him that this is not so; that Egypt genuinely desires progress toward a comprehensive peace settlement.
The Egyptians want “to start quickly, but then to advance with all due caution,” Peres said. He confirmed that he had proposed an across-the-board approach to all the outstanding disputes between the two countries in their bilateral relations. He also denied Arens’ charge that the meeting with El-Baz had been ill-prepared and that Likud was not informed in advance. Peres said he had consulted with Shamir who never betrayed confidences or leaked the contents of secret conversations. Those same rules of behavior should have applied to Arens who was standing in for the absent Shamir, Peres said.
Peres said in Eilat yesterday that the Egyptians do not make the renewal of good relations with Israel conditional upon any specific act by Israel. What they hope for is a general improvement in the atmosphere in Israel toward peace efforts.
“The Egyptians told us: Let’s start the process quickly. It may take a while, but even the first step is an achievement,” Peres said. He said he would welcome a meeting with the Jordanians and Palestinians, as suggested by Mubarak.
“We welcome a meeting between an Israeli delegation and a Jordanian or Jordanian-Palestinian delegation without PLO representatives … We’ve given an emphatic ‘yes’ to that suggestion,” Peres said. But, he added, “We don’t accept the second (Mubarak) proposal that a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation go to the U.S. to negotiate with the Americans and afterwards negotiate with Israel.”
Peres stressed he was trying to break the deadlock with Cairo. “People are coming to us at all hours of the day and night and we have gone there, again at all times of the day and night. We’ve started talking. I view the very fact of dialogue as a welcome thing,” Peres said.
He was referring to the meeting with El-Baz which was held at night and ran into the early hours of the next morning and to the fact that coincidental with that meeting, Gen. Avraham Tamir, director of the Prime Minister’s Office, went to Cairo for talks with Egyptian officials.
A caucus of the Likud Knesset faction yesterday seized on Arens’ derisive report of the El-Baz meeting to attack Labor. Michael Dekel, said to be Shamir’s choice for the vacant post of Deputy Defense Minister, accused Peres of “misleading the nation and preparing to spring elections on us” next fall. Pessach Gruper, of Likud’s Liberal Party faction, said the meeting with El-Baz had been so ludicrous that “I would laugh if this weren’t my government and my country.”
Haim Kaufman, chairman of the Likud Knesset faction, attacked Peres for failure to visit the disputed Taba region which is close to Eilat. He claimed it was a deliberate omission which would weaken Israel’s claim to the tiny strip of beach that Egypt insists is part of Sinai.