News Analysis: is the Premier’s New Tough Talk Saber-rattling or Stage-setting?

A current spate of hard-line political statements from Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has given rise to intense speculation here as the premier and his aides prepare for their first encounter with the new U.S. administration early next month in Washington.

Does the premier intend to portray a tough, “no concessions” stand in his talks with President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker?

Or is his uncompromising rhetoric designed to cast any moderation he may offer in Washington in the most favorable possible light, when it is set against a prior backdrop of harsh public inflexibility?

Some examples of Shamir’s tough talk:

* In an interview with The Washington Post last week, the Likud leader said Arafat would be imprisoned if he came to Israel to talk peace.

* In a weekend interview on British television, he noted that Labor’s dovish elder statesman, Abba Eban, was “no longer in the Knesset, thank God.”

* In a party speech Sunday, he blasted Peace Now as the most “marginal of marginal movements” and implied that Peace Now leaders who meet with Palestinians here and abroad are unpatriotic. In the same speech, he referred to the Palestinians as “a bother.”

* In a meeting with European Parliament members Monday, he ruled out the idea of elective local leadership that could then negotiate with Israel.

This idea has been advanced publicly by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Labor, and it is known to be supported by key figures in the Likud, among them Ministers Dan Meridor and Ehud Olmert.

EAGER TO FOSTER POSITIVE IMAGE

The premier’s vituperative comments about Peace Now triggered a series of similar and even sharper remarks from other right-wing politicians.

This, in turn, has engendered a wave of outrage from the left.

A group of 21 Knesset members has written to Shamir urging him to withdraw his own statements and restrain his party colleagues, for fear of fomenting the kind of public atmosphere in which Peace Now activist Emil Grunzweig was murdered during a 1983 demonstration against the Lebanon War.

Shamir’s aides deny that there is a planned strategy of tough talk in advance of the Washington trip.

On the contrary, they say, Shamir is eager to project to the U.S. government and to American and Jewish public opinion an image of a leader looking for new avenues to peace.

This is certainly what a large number of Jewish leaders invited to the “Solidarity with Israel” conference in Jerusalem March 20 to 23 will be hoping to see.

The aides say his harsh condemnation of Peace Now came in an unpremeditated response to a lengthy question from a Herut Party activist, in order to allay internal party fears that he is too soft on the evolving dialogue between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Israeli peace camp.

WILL FOCUS ON AUTONOMY

According to these interpreters of the prime minister’s intentions, Shamir’s major concern at this time is to channel his forthcoming consultations with Washington toward the issue of Palestinian autonomy — and away from issues pertaining to the final disposition of the territories.

Shamir will be saying to Bush and to Baker that there is no acceptable blueprint for a final solution. Instead, he will suggest the need to work toward an interim agreement, possibly based on Camp David, but injected with new and more “generous” terms on the part of the Israelis.

Israeli officials have been gratified to receive the signals emanating from the White House and State Department that the Bush team is by no means enamored of the Soviets’ recent high-profile, high-intensity involvement in Middle East peacemaking, and certainly not with Moscow’s consistent advocacy of an international peace conference.

At the same time, policymakers around Shamir are aware of the expectation, both in the United States and in other friendly countries, that the Israeli leader will produce “new ideas.”

Shamir is treading a narrow path between the need to maintain such essentially favorable expectations and the need not to disappoint them.

By talking tough, and then coming through with new offers of Palestinian self-government, Shamir hopes to win, if not Palestinian-Arab agreement, then at least a sympathetic ear in Washington.

NEXT STORY