JERUSALEM (Feb. 13)
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin has come to Likud’s rescue, in the aftermath of its turbulent Central Committee meeting Monday night, with a proposal that could save the Labor-Likud unity government and conceivably advance Israel’s peace initiative.
Labor’s No. 2 leader proposed in a radio interview Tuesday that the government’s next tactical moves in the peace process be shaped by the four senior ministers of both parties.
They are Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Moshe Arens of Likud, and Vice Premier Shimon Peres and Rabin of Labor.
By virtue of seniority, the so-called “Forum of Four” supersedes the policy-making Inner Cabinet, composed of six Likud and six Labor ministers, where deadlock along party lines reigns more often than consensus.
Rabin’s suggestion has the virtue of allowing Shamir to continue to head the unity government, despite the internal crisis in his own party.
It would mute the clamor by more dovish Laborites — Peres among them — to break now with Likud and try to form a Labor-led alternative government, in partnership with the religious and leftist parties.
ARENS MAY MEET WITH BAKER
The defense minister said the four may meet before Arens departs on a trip that could include a meeting in the United States with Secretary of State James Baker.
Arens is scheduled to stop in New York on Friday, en route to Mexico. There were reports here that he would use the layover to meet with Baker. But neither the State Department nor the Israeli Embassy in Washington could confirm those reports.
Such a meeting could set the stage for a long delayed meeting Baker is to have with Arens and his Egyptian counterpart, Esmat Abdel Meguid.
That meeting, which was supposed to take place in January, is intended to establish the terms for an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue to be hosted by Egypt, for the purpose of setting the ground rules for Palestinian elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The current split in Likud between the Shamir-Arens camp and the hard-line bloc led by Industry and Trade Minister Ariel Sharon has focused on which Palestinians will be allowed to participate in both the dialogue and the elections.
Actually, the two Likud camps are less far apart than their rift would indicate.
Both adamantly oppose any role in the peace process for the Palestine Liberation Organization, direct or indirect.
Both oppose allowing Palestinians deported from Israel to participate in the dialogue, and both oppose allowing Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to participate in the elections.
But Shamir has been more equivocal in his public statements on these points, explaining that the government needs room to maneuver.
Sharon and his supporters leap on this to accuse the prime minister of being soft on the Palestinians.
The government’s Labor component would make concessions to the Palestinians under certain conditions, a position appreciated by the United States and Egypt.
These differences between the coalition partners would have to be resolved by the four senior ministers before Arens leaves.
RESIGNATION STILL NOT OFFICIAL
Rabin conceded there would also have to be a clearcut decision by the Inner Cabinet and possibly the full Cabinet in advance of any meeting between Baker and the two foreign ministers.
Nevertheless, Rabin’s short-term recipe takes a good deal of pressure off Likud.
Shamir has yet to deal with Sharon’s resignation, which the dissident minister brazenly announced as he opened the Monday night meeting in his capacity as chairman of the Likud Central Committee.
Sharon read a scathing hand-written letter of resignation to the 2,600 assembled delegates, in which he accused the prime minister of incompetence and cowardice.
It was a letter Shamir still has not seen.
Pundits are undecided whether Sharon’s public resignation is to be taken seriously or whether it was a tactic to capture the attention of the Central Committee from Shamir and cast himself in the role of underdog.
According to law, a minister must submit his resignation to the prime minister, who presents it to the full Cabinet.
The Cabinet does not meet until Sunday. Sharon’s resignation would become effective 48 hours later, or not before Feb. 20.
Shamir is not urging his rival to reconsider. But another powerful Likud figure, Construction and Housing Minister David Levy, seems to have assumed the role of mediator.
Levy, who has been allied with Sharon against Shamir’s peace diplomacy, appealed to both camps to relent for the sake of party unity. He met privately with Shamir late Monday night and talked to Sharon alone Tuesday morning.
While not abandoning the hard-line camp, Levy found himself courted by Shamir, whose apparent purpose is to isolate Sharon and force him to implement his resignation.