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Labor-likud Inner Cabinet Deadlocked over Taba Compromise

A proposed compromise to resolve Israel’s border dispute with Egypt over Taba remained frozen Thursday after a meeting of the 10-man Labor-Likud Inner Cabinet Wednesday night ended in deadlock.

With the five Labor Party ministers, headed by Premier Shimon Peres, firmly behind the proposal and the five Likud ministers adamantly opposed, Peres refrained from bringing the matter to a formal vote. A tie, which was inevitable in this case, would have meant defeat of the compromise.

It was evident, meanwhile, that the fate of the year-old national unity coalition government hung in the balance. Although the Labor ministers, at a midnight caucus at Peres home Wednesday night apparently decided not to force an all-out confrontation with Likud at this time, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said in radio interviews Thursday morning that he could not see the government lasting out its term in a situation of diplomatic paralysis.

Yitzhak Navon, Deputy Premier and Minister of Education, also warned Thursday that the ongoing impasse with Egypt could lead to a serious deterioration in peaceful relations. “Life does not stand still. Where there is no progress, there is regression,” Navon, a former President of Israel and a powerful voice in the Labor Party, warned.

LATEST IN A SERIES OF CRISES

The latest in the long series of crises which have shaken the uneasy partnership between Labor and Likud followed Egypt’s agreement to a formula for tackling the Taba dispute. It calls for conciliation which would automatically give way to binding arbitration if the conciliation process failed, after a fixed number of weeks, to produce an agreement between the two countries.

Both conciliation and arbitration are provided for in the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty to settle disputes which can’t be resolved through more routine forms of diplomatic negotiations. The new formula would involve Israeli, Egyptian, and American officials, the latter presenting ideas for compromise which the two other parties would have to accept if they were to become a binding solution. This is a form of conciliation.

Arbitration would differ in that the two contesting parties have to agree in advance that the arbiter’s ruling, whatever it is, constitutes a quasi-judicial decision on the merits of the case and is therefore binding on them. An arbiter’s decision in a border dispute would clearly favor the claims of one side over the other, pre- cluding a compromise solution. The conciliation-leading-to-arbitration formula evolved as a face-saving device for Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir, Foreign Minister and Deputy Premier, who has insisted from the outset that Taba be resolved by conciliation, entailing compromise. It emerged from recent intensive consultations between the Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office, Gen. (Res.) Avraham Tamir, and Egyptian leaders, including President Hosni Mubarak. Their meetings were held in Cairo.

But Shamir spurned that as “a fig leaf.” At Wednesday night’s Inner Cabinet meeting he argued that under the proposed formula, while Israeli, Egyptian and American officials would be ostensibly engaged in conciliation, others would already be drafting the documents of arbitration.

“This is not conciliation. It is merely using the term conciliation as a cover-up” for proceeding with arbitration, Shamir said. “Why should we fool ourselves?” he asked. He said it was “regrettable” that there are internal differences within Israel over Taba. He maintained that Labor’s support of the Egyptian position only encouraged Egypt to reject the Likud position.

UNDERLYING INTERNAL DIFFERENCES

Underlying those internal differences are diametrically opposed views over how Israel should deal with Egypt. The Labor view, frequently and forcefully presented by Peres, is that a flexible approach over Taba — a tiny strip of beach on the Gulf of Aqaba which both countries agree is of little or no strategic or economic value — would open the way to the speedy resolution of far more important issues outstanding between Jerusalem and Cairo, such as normalization of relations and the return of Egypt’s Ambassador to Tel Aviv.

The Likud view is that anything other than a tough stance toward Egypt would compromise Israel’s credibility and sacrifice its principles. Ariel Sharon the Minister of Commerce and Industry, Likud’s most outspoken hardliner, warned at the Inner Cabinet meeting against any sign of “weakness” by Israel. Another hardliner, Minister-Without-Portfolio Moshe Arens, said he could not believe that a concession on Taba would open the way to a broader peace with Egypt.

While sources close to Shamir insisted that the Deputy Premier was setting the tone of Likud on the issue, Labor sources charged that not Shamir but Sharon dictated Likud policy. Shamir, in one of his radio interviews Wednesday, said he did not reject arbitration out of hand but needed clarification from Egypt regarding the proposal now under consideration.

Rabin, who conceded that arbitration was “objectively the best way” to determine where the true international border between Egypt and Israel is located, said he could not understand the logic of Likud’s position which seemed to balk at arbitration only because the Egyptians demanded it.

Peres, for his part, reportedly told the Inner Cabinet in solemn tones that he was determined not to preside over a government which was effectively paralyzed in the diplomatic arena. The latest crisis developed on the eve of Shamir’s departure for the United Nations General Assembly in New York where he has a meeting scheduled with Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Ismet Abdel Meguid.

Peres, too, will be going to the UN where he is to meet with President Mubarak. The Israelis clearly hope that the General Assembly’s 40th anniversary session will offer opportunities for fruitful diplomacy. But those hopes might not materialize if the Israeli government itself is sharply divided on diplomatic issues.

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