JERUSALEM (Oct. 18)
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir had what his aides described as a “very friendly” telephone conversation late Tuesday with President Bush.
But however cordial the exchange may have been, it apparently did not soothe American irritation over the Israeli premier’s sharp remarks this week rejecting American and Egyptian efforts to promote an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.
Shamir surprised opponents and supporters alike Tuesday by telling Likud Knesset members that he would risk a confrontation with the United States sooner than negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
He did stress that he does not want a confrontation with Israel’s greatest ally and that the prospect of such a clash “worries” him.
But he insisted that the United States is trying to push Israel into negotiations with the PLO. “We will stand firm to the end. We have every right to refuse to talk to the PLO,” Shamir declared.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler issued a sharply worded statement Wednesday calling those remarks “unhelpful, and we are disappointed.”
But she emphasized at the same time that the Bush administration does not want a confrontation with Israel.
In fact, Tutwiler stressed that the administration is continuing to work for the success of Shamir’s own proposal for Palestinian elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Neither White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater nor Tutwiler would reveal what was said in the 20-minute conversation between Shamir and Bush.
BAKER AND ARENS CONFER
But Shamir’s aides in Jerusalem said the prime minister and president had agreed that direct contacts were useful to clarify their respective positions in advance of their scheduled White House meeting next month.
Tutwiler commented on another telephone conversation Wednesday, between Secretary of State James Baker and Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens.
She said it dealt in its entirety with the U.S. proposal of a “framework” to bring about a dialogue between Israel and Palestinians. No mention was made of any looming confrontation.
Baker has suggested only that Israel, Egypt and the United State sit down to discuss the composition of a Palestinian delegation with which Israel would negotiate over its election plan.
But Shamir told the Likud Knesset members Tuesday that the present American peace effort is aimed at getting Israel to talk with a PLO-appointed delegation. That, he vowed, he would never agree to.
There is not a single element in the American political establishment that supports Israel’s position, Shamir reportedly complained.
Meanwhile, Labor Party officials are challenging Shamir’s tough stance against the American proposals.
They are fearful that Shamir’s defiant talk could precipitate a crisis in relations with the United States at a time when Israel needs close American support to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians.
Simcha Dinitz, chairman of the World Zionist Organization-Jewish Agency Executive and a member of the Labor Party’s ministerial forum, said Shamir himself is leading Israeli policy toward a collision with the United States.
Haim Ramon, chairman of the Labor Knesset faction, said the confrontation is not between Israel and the United States but within Israel itself.
Many political pundits are predicting the imminent collapse of the Likud-Labor coalition government.
While the Labor Party has endorsed Shamir’s election plan, fundamental differences have arisen between the coalition partners over its terms and scope.
Shamir is scheduled to meet with President Bush on Nov. 15. He will also be attending the annual General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations.
Many Israeli and American Jews fear that a U.S.-Israel showdown at this time would dominate the American Jewish agenda, overshadowing the CJF conclave. American Jewish leaders could conceivably find themselves in the position of having to take sides in Israel’s internal dispute.
NO PLO TALKS REQUIRED
Shamir insists that he has not abandoned his plan for Palestinian elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
And in an interview published Wednesday in the Jerusalem Post, the prime minister stressed that he does not oppose American or Egyptian involvement as such in the peace process.
He feels, nevertheless, that Israel must reject the specific proposals being advanced by Washington and Cairo at this time, while welcoming their basic desire to assist the peace process.
Shamir said Israel would redouble its efforts to promote its own plan in light of the outright rejection of the American proposals by the PLO’s Central Council in Baghdad this week.
The prime minister said Israel has ruled out a PLO role, because the PLO does not want peace. “The PLO wants a Palestinian state and they do not want a Jewish state, even though they proclaim otherwise,” he said.
He said Americans and Europeans are “simply mistaken” if they think the Israeli plan requires talks with the PLO.
(JTA correspondent David Friedman in Washington contributed to this report.)