As Parties Clash over Mubarak Plan, Minister Urges National Referendum

Interior Minister Arye Deri drew criticism from Likud circles and applause from at least one Labor Party leader Sunday after he proposed that Israelis decide in an unprecedented national referendum whether their government should back an Egyptian plan for advancing the peace process.

Deri’s proposal came against the backdrop of ongoing recriminations between Likud and Labor over Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 10-point proposal for implementing Israel’s peace plan. The tensions were exacerbated last week by Mubarak’s meetings in Cairo with Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a Laborite.

Deri’s proposal for a nationwide vote on the Egyptian plan was rejected by Likud leaders, who called it impractical and claimed “Labor would not show its true hand” in presenting it to the public.

Deri, a leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, may be responsible for helping develop one of the most controversial elements of the Mubarak proposal: the inclusion of two Palestinians from outside the administered territories in a delegation to conduct preliminary talks with Israel.

Deri and former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef discussed this idea with the Egyptian president when the two of them visited Cairo earlier this year.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the Likud leader, has totally rejected the Mubarak plan, largely because of the proposal to include so-called “diaspora Palestinians,” who would likely be activists deported from the territories who have links but no formal ties to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

TAKING SWIPES AT PERES

Rabin and Vice Premier Shimon Peres, who heads the Labor Party, have applauded the Egyptian proposal.

During a visit to Los Angeles last week, he threatened a “divorce” in the national unity government if Likud did not take advantage of the momentum generated by the Israeli-Egyptian exchanges on the peace process.

Likewise, officials close to Shamir bluntly warned over the weekend that the government would likely collapse if Rabin did not reverse his support for the Mubarak proposal.

At Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Shamir did not expressly repeat this warning, nor did Rabin react to it, despite the fact it was the main headline in all newspapers.

Instead, Shamir took a swipe at Peres, pointedly remarking that ministers who travel abroad should stick strictly to the matters of concern to their ministry. Peres heads the Finance Ministry.

Following the Cabinet meeting, Shamir’s close confidant Ronni Milo, who is minister for environmental protection, lobbed more direct criticism at Peres, accusing the vice premier of conducting a separate and unauthorized foreign policy during his current stay in the United States.

Meanwhile, Peres’ confidant, Deputy Finance Minister Yossi Beilin, warmly endorsed Deri’s proposal for a national referendum.

SEPARATE AGENDAS IN NEW YORK

The Israeli news media are playing up reports of the apparently separate political agendas of Peres and Foreign Minister Moshe Arens, who are both in New York.

Both are to meet separately with Mubarak; Peres is to see President Bush; and Arens is to meet with Secretary of State James Baker.

Peres has repeatedly reiterated the need to not allow this opportunity for peace to slip away. Shamir’s office, on the other hand, insists that Arens, his Likud colleague, is not even empowered to discuss the Egyptian proposal, that his mandate solely rests on the Israeli initiative for elections in the territories.

Deri, who would be a pivotal figure in any coalition-making if the present government were to collapse, said Sunday he believed the gulf between the premier and defense minister was “not wide.” He blamed a “lack of coordination” for the impasse.

The interior minister said the country wants this government to continue. He vowed that his own Shas party, which has six seats in the Knesset, would not lend its support to either of the major parties to form an alternative, narrow-based government.

But he added that the nation is completely sick of the present situation and would support a pro-peace line in a referendum.

The National Religious Party also has been trying to mediate between Labor and Likud. The effort, however, appears to have boomeranged, triggering discord within its own ranks.

NRP leaders convened in a stormy meeting Sunday night after Religion Affairs Minister Zevulun Hammer presented Shamir and Rabin with a document that attempted to bridge the gap between them.

The NRP’s other Cabinet minister, Avner Shaki, a hard-liner who holds no portfolio, vehemently attacked the document for “enshrining Egypt as the peacemaker.”

Meanwhile, as the rhetoric between Likud and Labor got more and more ominous, Shamir closed Sunday’s overheated Cabinet meeting with a Rosh Hashanah wish for a “year of unity.” Political pundits say at this point it may take something akin to divine intervention to make the wish a reality.

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