JERUSALEM (Feb. 12)
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his principal rival, Ariel Sharon, both claimed victory for mutually exclusive policies at a climactic meeting of the Likud Central Committee, which ended Monday night in near pandemonium.
Sharon, who is minister of industry and trade, added to the drama by announcing from the dais that he was quitting the government, because he could not abide Shamir’s peace policies.
At stake at the meeting was the course Shamir and his supporters propose to follow in bringing about Palestinian elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, leading to negotiations over Palestinian self-rule in the territories.
The entire concept is fiercely opposed by Sharon, who has the support of two other powerful Likud ministers, David Levy and Yitzhak Moda’i, as well as like-minded Knesset members.
The party’s rank and file, represented by some 2,600 Central Committee members, was supposed to approve one side or the other.
But the show of hands after Shamir delivered a programmatic policy speech of 42 minutes’ duration may or may not have been an endorsement by the majority.
“I ask you and require you to give your support to the policy I have enunciated,” Shamir declared.
“Do you support ending the intifada forth with? Please raise your hands,” was Sharon’s emotional pitch.
There was a forest of hands, but it was impossible to tell for whom they were raised, since both ministers spoke simultaneously over different microphones.
SHAMIR LESS CATEGORICAL
Sharon remained on the platform after Shamir and his supporters left the meeting hall behind a flying wedge of security guards and shouts of “Coward!” from hard-liners.
Shamir’s rivals claimed that the premier had, in fact, “snatched the vote” and run, because, if anything, the vote was for the hard-line platform enunciated by Sharon.
The spectacle, which took place at the Tel Aviv Fair Grounds, was broadcast live by Israel Radio and the army radio station. It was taped for later television broadcast in Israel and throughout the world.
Political observers agreed that no matter who won the debate, the party suffered a massive public embarrassment.
While Sharon’s question about ending the intifada was rhetorical, his others were clearly calculated to cripple Shamir’s policies.
“Do you support barring East Jerusalemites from participating in the Palestinian delegation? Raise your hands. Do you support barring deportees from participating? Raise your hands,” Sharon intoned.
Shamir had been less categorical on those key issues in his speech. Especially noticeable was his omission of an unequivocal veto on including Palestinians deported from Israel in preliminary Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, as the Arabs have insisted.
Shamir said a prime minister and a government need a certain amount of room for maneuver in the conduct of their foreign policy, and this should be understood by the Central Committee members.
Most of the delegates remained in the hall after Shamir and his entourage left, a fact hardline observers called an expression of widespread disagreement with the prime minister’s tactics.
RESIGNATION NOT FORMAL YET
The session continued for about 20 minutes, with Sharon, Levy and right-wing Knesset member Tzahi Hanegbi exhorting the delegates. The proceedings finally were brought to an end with the warring camps each pledging to continue the battle in the days and weeks ahead.
Sharon tendered his resignation at the start of the session. In response, his supporters chanted in unison, “Don’t quit, Arik,” the former Israel Defense Force general’s nickname.
Sharon responded, “I heard you, I heard you.”
Shamir said later that he would respond after he receives the resignation letter.
Political observers doubt that Sharon will make his resignation formal at this time. But if he does, Shamir has indicated he will accept it. A minister’s resignation becomes effective 48 hours after it is formally submitted.
After the session, Shamir said he hoped “that the Likud is not weakened by this special situation, but indeed that it emerges strengthened.”
But many observers spoke of an imminent split that could rend the movement permanently into two separate groups.
Shamir vowed that he would “very soon” convene the various smaller policy-making bodies of Likud, apparently to try for the unity that eluded Likud on Monday.
Meanwhile, Labor Party ministers were locked in a policy conference late Monday night.
The doves pushed again for the party to break with Likud and try to form a narrow government with the religious factions.
Labor hard-liners, led by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, argued that the peace diplomacy can still best be served by preserving the present government. According to Rabin, it would be “irresponsible” for Labor to quit the unity government “hastily.”