Peres, Shamir Argue in Cabinet over International Conference, but Unity Coalition Seen to Hold

Premier Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres had a sharp verbal exchange at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, but the long anticipated coalition crisis over the issue of an international conference for Middle East peace failed to materialize.

It was the first meeting between the two men around the Cabinet table in several weeks. Peres returned at noon Friday from a two-day visit to Cairo, where he and his hosts issued a joint statement committing their countries to strive to reach agreement this year on convening an international conference as a framework for direct negotiations between all of the parties concerned.

Shamir, who returned to Israel Wednesday from a 10-day visit to the U.S. only hours after Peres left for Cairo, made clear that his opposition to an international conference was as strong as ever. He stressed repeatedly that Peres had no mandate to agree to any undertaking on the part of Israel and that whatever resulted from his talks with Egypt’s leaders would have to be brought before the Cabinet.

PERES DISPUTES CABINET ARGUMENT

Peres, who had two meetings with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and lengthy discussions with his official host, Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid, told reporters on his return that there was no need for him to bring the joint statement to the Cabinet for ratification. He explained, however, that he opposed the idea of an international conference as a negotiating forum. The peace talks themselves must be direct, without outside intervention, he said. He said Shamir “has no mandate to reject such a conference.”

Peres and the Egyptian leaders agreed in their joint statement that the Middle East conflict should be resolved in all its aspects, including the question of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.

Peres said they also agreed that the Palestinian representatives participating in the negotiations must be persons acceptable to all of the parties. The Palestine Liberation Organization was not mentioned. According to members of Peres’ entourage, this signified Egypt’s understanding that Israel opposes any role for the PLO in peace talks.

DLSCUSSIONS REPORTEDLY SET

According to Haaretz correspondent Akiva Eldar, who accompanied Peres to Cairo, there is an understanding that Egypt and Israel will begin discussions on preparatory talks, with the participation of others to create a list of acceptable Palestinian members of a Jordanian-Palestinian negotiating delegation.

Peres ducked questions of an impending Labor-Likud split that could bring down the unity government. He insisted the joint communique in Cairo was within the framework of government policy and said he would report on his talks to “the Premier and the Cabinet.”

Earlier, Shamir said he had not spoken to Peres for nearly two weeks and had received no reports from him while he was in Egypt. “I will not chase him,” Shamir was quoted as saying.

‘COOL BUT CORRECT,’ THEN ARGUMENT

While the Premier refused to react to the Cairo communique Friday, observers were primed for an explosive confrontation in the Cabinet Sunday. But the session turned out to be “cool but correct.” Shamir and Peres reported on their respective visits to the U.S. and Egypt.

What triggered their exchange was a remark by Likud Deputy Premier David Levy. After hearing both reports, he said the unity coalition could not continue “speaking in two voices.”

At that point, the Shamir-Peres rift emerged. They exchanged barbs directly rather than through proxies, as has been the case. According to knowledgeable sources, their verbal duel was as follows:

Shamir: “He who says that anyone who opposes an international conference kills the peace process should take back his words.”

Peres: “He who accuses me for wanting a conference of a Soviet pattern, and that I want to return to the 1967 borders, he is the one who should take back his words.”

Shamir: “Indeed, he who presses today for a conference wants to return to the 1967 lines.” (He was referring to Israel’s pre-1967 borders.)

Peres: “He who does the opposite kills the peace process.”

Shamir: “If you say that you don’t want the 1967 borders, then this meeting was worth its while.”

Peres: “You don’t understand the differences between negotiations within an international conference and negotiations which open with an international conference.”

Shamir: “I believe that the conference is a Soviet-Arab idea.”

SHAMIR, PERES LAMENT

Shamir expressed “sadness” over the latest developments. He accused the Labor Alignment, headed by Peres, of trying to impose its views on the rest of the government, contrary to the coalition guidelines.

Peres said he was appalled by the “ugly campaign” against him. “There was a rotation in the Premiership, but not a rotation in policy,” he said, adding that he would continue to work toward an international conference, and whoever wanted to stop him should bring the matter before the Cabinet for a vote.

The consensus after the Cabinet session was that the present crisis has subsided and the national unity government will remain intact for the time being.

In fact, it seemed apparent on Friday that Likud in particular wants to avoid a break. MK Ronnie Milo, a close aide to Shamir, played down the importance of Peres’ talks in Egypt. “The mountain has produced a mouse,” he said.

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