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14 Knesset Members Form Bloc Backing 3 Cabinet Hard-liners

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A group of 14 Likud Knesset members has formed a bloc around three hard-line ministers dissatisfied with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s peace initiative and the way he has handled negotiations with the United States.

The group, which calls itself “Protectors of Eretz Israel,” supports Shamir’s most severe critics in the Cabinet.

They are Minister of Industry and Commerce Ariel Sharon and David Levy, the construction and housing minister, both powerful members in Shamir’s Herut faction; and Minister of Economics and Planning Yitzhak Moda’i, leader of Likud’s Liberal Party wing.

Levy, who also holds the rank of deputy premier, encouraged the hard-line caucus over the weekend.

He lashed out at Shamir’s handling of the diplomatic process surrounding American guidelines for an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, namely the five points proposed by Secretary of State James Baker.

Shamir, who met with President Bush and Baker on Nov. 15, is still in the United States and will spend several days in France and Italy before returning to Israel.

Meanwhile, his policies are being questioned by his own party and by his Labor Party coalition partners.

ISRAEL’S ACCEPTANCE NOT CONDITIONAL

Vice Premier Shimon Peres, who heads the Labor Party and is acting prime minister in Shamir’s absence, insisted at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting that Israel’s acceptance of Baker’s five points was not “conditional” on receiving a half-dozen assurances from Washington.

Shamir made clear before leaving for the United States that he was seeking assurances that Israel would not be forced to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization in any manner or form.

It also sought assurances that its dialogue with the Palestinians would be confined to the modalities of elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Shamir admitted after his White House meeting that he received no such assurances, but said that various problems were clarified and that there was no “tension” between Israel and the United States.

Levy, Sharon and Moda’i oppose an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, with or without American assurances.

Levy exchanged angry words with Shamir’s associates over who was responsible for Likud’s poor showing in the Histadrut elections last week.

The party won 28 percent of the votes in the Labor-dominated trade union federation, short of its goal of at least one-third of the votes cast.

According to Levy, Shamir’s “flexibility” on peace policy scared off supporters.

Shamir’s friends said it was the dissent at the top of the party that lost Likud votes.

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