JERUSALEM (May. 13)
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres suffered a severe setback Wednesday. The Inner Cabinet failed to approve his proposals for an international conference for Middle East peace while prospects dimmed that the Knesset would vote to dissolve itself and open the way for early elections.
Peres, who was scheduled to fly the U.S. Wednesday night for a brief visit, postponed his departure until Friday, but refused to concede defeat. The Inner Cabinet, the government’s top policy-making body, comprised of five Labor and five Likud Ministers, did not vote on Peres’ plan Wednesday because the Foreign Minister, anticipating a 5-5 deadlock, did not submit it.
But after meeting for less than three hours — following an inconclusive 4 1/2 hour debate Monday — Premier Yitzhak Shamir stated that since the Peres proposal had not come up for a formal vote, it must be seen as having been rejected and henceforth no Minister may pursue it in diplomatic contacts abroad.
BLASTS SHAMIR’S INTERPRETATION
Peres called that interpretation “illegal,” maintaining that since there was no formal vote, the situation was unchanged. “Let us ask the nation to decide” by disbanding the Labor-Likud coalition and electing a new Knesset, he declared.
Peres was supported by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who argued that the unity government was no longer committed to its basic policy guideline — the pursuit of peace — and therefore must be dissolved.
The two Labor Party leaders took the same line speaking to reporters after the Cabinet session. “What the Prime Minister says, with all due respect to him, is tantamount to the cessation of the peace process. He speaks of direct negotiations with Jordan, but everyone knows this is not a practical prospect … it is doomed to failure,” Peres said.
King Hussein of Jordan has consistently refused direct negotiations with Israel outside the framework of an international conference. Peres insists he has an understanding with Hussein that an international conference “opening” will be followed immediately by bilateral negotiations with Jordan.
On Tuesday, Shamir denounced the entire idea as “criminal and stupid” and said it must be expunged from the agenda. Laborites said their coalition partnership with Likud is no longer viable and Peres has challenged Shamir to take their dispute to the electorate.
But a survey of the pivotal small parties Wednesday indicated that Labor would be unable to muster enough votes to dissolve the Knesset as long as Likud is determined to preserve the government.
At the same time Labor Party leaders made clear that they would not secede from the unity government and “abandon the Defense portfolio to Arik (Ariel) Sharon,” the most extreme hawk among Likud Ministers.
Haim Kaufman, chairman of the Likud Knesset faction said in a radio interview following the Inner Cabinet meeting that Peres is obliged now either to support the Prime Minister’s policies or lead his party out of the government.
Likud appears to have succeeded in lining up enough Knesset votes to defeat a dissolution motion. The ultra-rightwing opposition Tehiya Party, which introduced its own motion to dissolve parliament this week, is now siding with Likud because Shamir was standing “firm as a rock.”
The Shas religious party is reluctant to dissolve parliament and spoil its chances of returning to the government after a five-month absence.
Its leader, former Interior Minister Yitzhak Peretz, resigned in January over a halachic conversion dispute.
Aharon Abu-Hatzeira of Tami, is rumored to have been promised a seat by Likud if he opposed early elections. Similarly, MK Yigael Hurwitz of the one-man Ometz faction, who has sided with Labor, reportedly is considering rejoining Likud.
Mordechai Wirshubsky of the Shinui Party, a longtime advocate of early elections, conceded Wednesday that they are unlikely in the near future, given the present balance of forces in the Knesset.
SHULTZ BACKS PERES’ PLAN
When the Inner Cabinet began its fruitless debate Monday, Peres read a letter he and Shamir had received Sunday from U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz. He reportedly wrote that while he had been initially skeptical about an international conference, he now thought it was the best course to follow.
But United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar said in New York Monday that there is not sufficient agreement between the parties to the Middle East conflict to permit convening an international peace conference.
He said he drew that conclusion following consultations during March and April in New York with representatives of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The Secretary General was making the report requested by a resolution of the UN General Assembly on Dec. 2, 1986 to prepare a review of efforts toward convening an international conference.