JERUSALEM (Feb. 26)
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir gave the distinct impression Monday that he is leaning toward U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s compromise formula for starting an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.
In a briefing to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and in comments to reporters, the prime minister at least refrained from denying he had Baker’s proposals under consideration.
Until now, Shamir has refused to accept Palestinians from East Jerusalem or anyone deported from the administered territories as a member of the Palestinian delegation with which Israel would negotiate.
But he told reporters Monday that this was not really important.
Baker, who met in Washington last Friday with Foreign Minister Moshe Arens, is said to have proposed that Israel ignore such labels as “East Jerusalemites” and “deportees,” and focus instead on individuals.
According to informed sources, that means a Palestinian with a home or office in East Jerusalem would be accepted as a negotiator, as would at least one former deportee with no direct link to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Baker emphasized to Arens that a “very quick” response was expected from Israel.
Although Shamir told reporters not to expect any “dramatic” decisions when the Cabinet addresses the issue shortly, the political community here is convinced he is indeed contemplating a concession along the lines suggested by Baker.
LABOR ACCEPTS BAKER POSITION
That apparently was sensed in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, where Shamir won rare praise from a dedicated dove, Yossi Sarid, but bitter reproaches from hard-liner Geula Cohen of the right-wing party Tehiya.
Shamir insisted that the projected dialogue with the Palestinians would be a strictly “technical” discussion of the proposed Palestinian elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, not negotiations.
As far as the Labor side of the unity coalition is concerned, Baker’s proposals are entirely acceptable, and the opportunity to negotiate “must not be missed,” Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin told a high school audience Monday.
“We are not holding a stopwatch,” he added, saying that it does not matter whether the Cabinet takes one week or two to reach a positive decision.
The Labor Party, with Rabin’s assent, last week gave Likud a two-week deadline to reach the required decisions or risk dissolution of its coalition with Labor.
Vice Premier Shimon Peres, who heads the Labor Party, said Monday that what Baker asked of Arens was “perfectly reasonable.”
He told members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that Labor members “don’t need to be convinced.”
“Whether there will be one or two Palestinian deportees, that will be no problem,” Peres said. “What counts is the beginning of dialogue.”
But Justice Minister Dan Meridor of Likud, speaking to the same audience Sunday night, was less than enthusiastic over the American ideas.
“I hope the Americans don’t make the mistake of thinking that if they build a bridge of words it will hold, so that people can walk over it. I don’t think it will,” he said.
He warned that if the United States manages to get the PLO into the peace process and “get Israel cornered,” no peace will result and “maybe just the opposite.”
LIKUD FACTION DEFECTS
Israeli peace diplomacy is on hold until Arens returns later in the week from Warsaw, where he was to participate in official ceremonies Tuesday marking the formal restoration of full diplomatic relations between Poland and Israel.
Shamir, for his part, has serious problems on the domestic political front.
A breakaway faction of Likud’s Liberal Party wing, led by Economics and Planning Minister Yitzhak Moda’i, has petitioned the Knesset House Committee for formal status as a new party.
Labor immediately demanded rotation of the office of prime minister, on the grounds that Likud would no longer be the largest single faction in the Knesset.
Within Likud itself, 22 Knesset members, including some supporters of the Shamir-Arens camp, petitioned the prime minister Monday to brief them behind closed doors on the latest diplomatic moves.
One Shamir supporter, Uzi Landau, warned that if media accounts of the recent Baker-Arens talks are correct, the proposed dialogue with Palestinians in Cairo “would mean, in effect, the creation of a Palestinian-PLO state.”
An obviously beleaguered Shamir confessed to reporters Monday that thoughts of resignation have indeed crossed his mind. But he said his sense of responsibility outweighed his personal penchant.