JERUSALEM (Jan. 2)
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir appears to have scored a masterly political coup by the 11th-hour reversal Tuesday of his decision to fire Ezer Weizman from the Cabinet, for alleged contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Under a deal worked out between Shamir’s Likud bloc and the Labor Party, Weizman will retain Cabinet rank as minister of science and development, a non-influential portfolio. But the dovish Laborite had to resign from the prestigious, policy-making Inner Cabinet of 12 senior ministers.
The arrangement allows Shamir to preserve the unity coalition government, while severely embarrassing his politically weakened Labor partners, political pundits say.
It also strengthens Shamir’s own position against hard-line critics in Likud and sends a clear message abroad that Israel will not relent in its policy of no talks with the PLO, political observers say.
In addition, Shamir succeeded in personally humiliating Weizman, one of the most outspoken critics of the premier’s policy toward the Palestinians.
The drama began at 1:30 p.m. Sunday when, at the end of the weekly Cabinet session, Shamir suddenly informed Weizman he was dismissed because of his contacts with the PLO.
Shamir did not detail his charges and Weizman, who has publicly advocated talks with the PLO, made only a vague denial.
But the stage was set for a government crisis, since the national unity coalition agreement stipulates that the prime minister cannot oust a Labor minister without the agreement of the vice premier, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres.
LABOR DID NOT WANT BREAKUP
But while Peres waxed indignant at the Shamir move and Labor doves rallied for Weizman, it was clear that most Labor ministers would not give up their portfolios for their hapless colleague.
Neither Labor nor Likud is eager for new elections at this time, and neither party seems capable of putting together a narrow substitute coalition, in partnership with the small religious parties that always hold the balance of power.
According to law, a decision by the prime minister takes effect 48 hours after it is announced. The eventual Likud-Labor compromise was achieved at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, just an hour before the deadline.
Weizman told reporters the arrangement was worked out in advance of his meeting with Shamir on Tuesday, which he described as “pleasant.”
He said he accepted the demotion, because he felt obliged to the Labor Party and those who support him. He credited his decision for enabling the unity government to stay in office.
Labor doves seemed disappointed that Weizman did not put up more of a fight. And the party’s hawks would have preferred Labor to be rid of him.
Some political observers are convinced Labor would sooner have ditched Weizman than let the government fall.
Weizman announced he would be traveling to the Soviet Union this week, as planned before the crisis broke. He was to leave for Vienna on Wednesday.
His impending visit to Moscow reportedly aroused Shamir to take action against him. The prime minister is said to have feared that Weizman would meet or communicate with a PLO figure there and that the Soviet media would break the story, to Israel’s embarrassment.
Weizman has flatly denied such a meeting was contemplated.
CLEAR SIGNAL FROM JERUSALEM
Some Likud members are demanding criminal action against the Labor minister, inasmuch as contact with the PLO is a violation of the law as well as of government policy.
But Shamir’s aides appear to be satisfied with the political gains that the premier has reaped from the weekend crisis. Within Likud, Shamir succeeded in reasserting his authority and leadership, a setback for his rivals in the party, notably Ariel Sharon, David Levy and Yitzhak Moda’i.
It is more clear than ever that next time Likud goes to the polls, its list will be headed by Shamir, political observers said Tuesday.
But sources close to Shamir are stressing the international diplomatic impact of the crisis and its resolution. They say the message emanating from Jerusalem is now crystal clear: Israel will not deal with the PLO.
Such a signal comes at a crucial time, as Israel, Egypt and the United States try to bring about some kind of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue in Cairo. The main stumbling block has been the PLO’s insistence on a role in the talks, and Israel’s opposition to it.
Anyone who had begun to feel that resolve was eroding will now have to review that assessment, in light of Shamir’s success in punishing Weizman and the fact that large elements of the Labor Party acquiesced to it.
Likud officials feel the Americans cannot help but take notice.