JERUSALEM (May. 22)
Premier Shimon Peres today ruled out “any interference” by the executive branch of government in the judicial process. He flatly rejected, in that connection, “any linkage” between Monday’s exchange of 1,150 Palestinian and other prisoners serving sentences for terrorist activities for three Israeli soldiers held captive by a Damascus-based terrorist organization, and the 26 alleged members of a Jewish terrorist underground currently on trial or already convicted for crimes of violence against Arab civilians in the West Bank.
The Prime Minister’s Office made clear that Peres spoke for the ranking Labor Party ministers in the Labor-Likud unity coalition government. The Premier’s position was announced following what was described as a raucous meeting of the 10 member inner cabinet which consists of five Laborite and five Likud ministers.
It places Labor in direct confrontation with its Likud partners who are urging the release of the Jewish underground suspects. Sources close to Peres indicated that if Likud tried to breach the line of non-interference, survival of the unity government would be seriously threatened.
Likud itself is under heavy pressure from the opposition rightwing Tehiya party and from the religious parties — all of the Jewish terrorist suspects are Orthodox Jews — to free the trial defendants in view of the fact that convicted Arab murderers have been freed.
ANXIOUS TO PRESERVE UNITY GOVERNMENT
But according to well placed observers, Deputy Premier and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the Likud leader, is anxious for the time being to preserve the unity government. They said he is prepared to postpone efforts to secure the release of the Jewish suspects until after their trial ends, although he is being pressured by Commerce and Industry Minister Ariel Sharon, the most hardline of the Likud ministers, to take a tougher position.
A similar split was manifested in the Knesset where the Labor and Likud factions met separately today to debate the issue. The Labor faction issued a statement commending the government’s “courageous” decision to carry out the prisoner exchange and to refuse to link it to the trial of the alleged Jewish terrorists.
The Likud faction blasted the prisoner exchange and was nearly unanimous in demanding the release of the Jews on trial. No formal statement was issued, however, because the Likud debate has not ended. Shamir and another Likud minister, Moshe Arens, have apparently made peace with the prisoner exchange. They said today the government had no choice because the lives of the three Jewish soldiers held captive in Damascus were in danger.
PRESSING FOR RELEASE OF THE JEWISH SUSPECTS
But Shamir was quoted today as saying that his goal was the release of the Jewish suspects and that any legal means to achieve it would be satisfactory to him.
Justice Minister Moshe Nissim, also of Likud, explained to his party’s Knesset members that as long as the defendants are on trial, only the Attorney General, Yitzhak Zamir, could intervene and he is, under the law, not subject to direction from the political or executive levels.
Political observers agreed that if Likud presses for the immediate release of the men on trial, the unity government would fall. On the other hand, if Likud allows the trial to take its due course and sentences are pronounced, there is every possibility that all of the defendants will receive Presidential clemency and the unity government would survive.