Labor and Likud Ministers Wrestle over Egyptian Call for a Dialogue

A seemingly united Labor Party and a sharply split Likud bloc continued to wrestle Thursday with the issue of an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue that President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has offered to host in Cairo.

The Inner Cabinet, the government’s top policy-making body of six Likud and six Labor ministers, debated the next steps in the peace process for five hours, without reaching agreement on how to proceed. They decided to reconvene Friday morning.

Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin warned publicly afterward that whoever rebuffs Egyptian efforts to promote a dialogue does not genuinely seek peace.

The Laborite’s remark was aimed at Likud, which is divided between ministers reluctant to accept the Egyptian ideas and those who want the government to flatly reject them.

Egypt has offered a 10-point proposal to advance the peace plan that Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir proposed last spring. Mubarak’s idea is for Israeli and Palestinian delegations to discuss these 10 points in Cairo.

Labor is willing to accept the 10 points as the opening position of the Palestinian delegation. The United States is said to feel the same way, though it has not said so publicly.

Likud is staunchly opposed to Egypt’s suggestion that Palestinians outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including those deported by Israel, should be included in the talks.

Likud also rejects the premise that the “land for peace” formula should serve as the basis for peace talks. That premise is one of Mubarak’s 10 points.

OPPOSITION FROM HARD-LINERS

Some Likud leaders are obviously searching for ways around those conditions.

Foreign Minister Moshe Arens, who is close to Shamir, told his Inner Cabinet colleagues that the United States has suggested convening a three-way meeting with Israel and Egypt to put together an acceptable Palestinian delegation.

But the idea failed to win support from either Likud hard-liners or Laborites.

Construction and Housing Minister David Levy of Likud said after the session that Arens’ references to a U.S. position were “clouded in obscurity.”

Rabin said he would be “very surprised” if the Americans were to “dirty their hands” by undertaking their own initiative.

When Moshe Shahal of Labor suggested that Arens bring the minutes of his recent talks with U.S Secretary of State James Baker to Friday’s Inner Cabinet session, Likud hard-liner Ariel Sharon interjected, “See, they’re in cahoots.”

Labor sources said Arens seemed to be taking Baker’s references to three-way talks on the composition of a Palestinian delegation “out of context.”

The sources said the Americans did not want to supersede Egypt’s 10-point position paper and that the Egyptians made clear they would refuse to hold formal talks with Israel and the United States over the delegation’s composition.

Vice Premier Shimon Peres, the Labor Party leader, said Thursday night that “any proposal which could lead to talks between Israel and an acceptable Palestinian delegation” should be considered.

Peres, like Arens, seemed to be looking for a formula that would bridge the gap between Labor and the Shamir bloc in Likud, thereby isolating a hard-line minority.

INVITATION SENT BY EGYPT

The Inner Cabinet session was preceded by a hastily convened meeting of Likud ministers after it was learned that Labor planned to introduce a formal resolution calling for acceptance of the Egyptian position, in order to get a dialogue started.

But the meeting devised no counteroffensive.

It was mainly an exchange of verbal blows between Sharon and fellow hard-liner Yitzhak Moda’i and their moderate colleagues, Ehud Olmert and Moshe Katsav.

Labor was prompted to act by a carefully timed letter delivered to the leadership of both coalition partners by the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv. It contained an invitation to hold a dialogue with the Palestinians in Cairo and a reprise of Mubarak’s 10 points.

Cairo simultaneously leaked a list of 12 prominent Palestinian activists which Mubarak and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat were said to have agreed on to constitute the Palestinian delegation.

According to unconfirmed reports, Mubarak presented the list to President Bush in Washington on Monday. But the State Department said Thursday that the United States had received no such list.

The 12 named are known PLO supporters representing Arafat’s Al Fatah movement. Two were deported for alleged anti-Israel activities.

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