Divisions Widen in Coalition Sparked by Taba Disagreement

Deep divisions between the Labor and Likud partners in the national unity coalition government have become more pronounced, leading to speculation that its days are numbered.

The present cleavage is over how to approach a settlement with Egypt on the Taba issue, the tiny strip of beach south of Eilat which both countries claim. Deputy Premier and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the Likud leader, is sharply at odds with Premier Shimon Peres who believes a solution of the Taba dispute is the key to an overall rapproachment with Egypt and eventual peace talks with Israel’s other neighbors.

Shamir made his position clear in a hard-line speech to the Jewish Agency Assembly here today. He accused Egypt of trying to avoid repairing relations with Israel. He blasted King Hussein of Jordan for “radicalizing” his own positions on negotiations.

Peres is prepared to accede to Egypt’s demand that the Taba dispute be put to arbitration. Shamir insists that conciliation must be the first step, with arbitration only a last resort. Moreover, Shamir maintains that the economic crisis should be the government’s top priority and Taba can wait.

Last week the Inner Cabinet — five Labor and five Likud ministers — deadlocked on a motion to follow the course on Taba recommended by Peres. A tie vote kills the motion. Peres and Shamir met privately afterwards but were unable to resolve their differences. They agreed to meet again in a few days.

PERES BELIEVES SETTLEMENT CRUCIAL

Sources close to Peres say the Premier regards a settlement with Egypt both crucial and timely and will not allow himself to be neutralized in the management of foreign policy. The sources said he is not ready to precipitate a crisis with Likud at this time but is prepared for a showdown if his efforts to reach an agreement with Shamir fail.

Peres believes he has good reason to expect that flexibility on Taba — an agreement in principle to go into arbitration — will lead to a summit meeting between himself and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. If his interpretation of signals from Cairo is correct, the meeting will result in a package deal encompassing all outstanding differences between the two countries including normalization of relations and the return of the Egyptian Ambassador to Tel Aviv.

Sources here recalled that Shamir himself had always insisted that the Taba dispute be settled in the context of an overall package. They say the Egyptians are showing signs that they want to further the process. Trade with Israel is picking up gradually, anti-Israel propaganda in the Egyptian media has become somewhat less strident recently, and a long series of bilateral agreements have been concluded in talks between officials of the two countries.

CONFRONTATION APPEARS UNAVOIDABLE

At a meeting of the Labor Party’s Knesset faction this week, Peres received solid support for his approach to Egypt, formalized in a resolution adopted by the faction. Enthusiasm ran so high that the party whips had to restrain some of their colleagues who wanted a paragraph in the resolution charging that the Likud members who opposed the original peace treaty with Egypt–Shamir notably among them — are now trying to destroy the peace.

Labor’s Knesset faction, following Peres’ lead, does not want to inflame Likud at this time. But a confrontation appears unavoidable in the not too distant future. It may be precipitated by Taba which in itself has no strategic or economic value but has become a symbol of the antithetical policies of the two government partners.

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