JERUSALEM (Mar. 4)
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his Likud bloc, under intense pressure to back an American compromise formula for Israeli-Palestinian talks, got something of a reprieve from the Labor Party on Sunday.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who last month gave Likud a two-week deadline to accept the American proposal or face a collapse of the unity government, told reporters that if Shamir needed another week to decide, he would have no objection.
He spoke after the so-called “Forum of Four,” Israel’s top four Cabinet ministers, met Sunday afternoon to consider the American proposal. Taking part in the closed-door session were Shamir; his close ally, Foreign Minister Moshe Arens; Vice Premier Shimon Peres, who heads the Labor Party; and Rabin.
By contrast, Peres told reporters that there is “nothing that justifies a postponement” of an Israeli decision on the American proposal.
But it appears that Rabin’s views prevailed. Political observers stress that without his support, Labor’s threat to form a narrow government with the religious parties and the left wing lacks credibility.
Although it was Rabin who handed Likud the original ultimatum, the defense minister made clear to reporters Sunday that he thinks it would be “better for the sake of peace” that the present government continue.
FINAL PROPOSAL FROM BAKER
The issue threatening the survival of the government is whether Israel is prepared to enter preliminary talks with a Palestinian delegation that would include Palestinians living outside the administered territories.
Secretary of State James Baker informed Arens on Feb. 23 that he needed a “very quick” response from Israel or he would turn away from the Middle East conflict. He has now sent Shamir what is probably his final proposal, in the form of two questions.
Israel is being asked if it will agree to the selection of Palestinian delegates from among candidates who are formally residents of the territories.
A supplementary question makes it clear that these candidates would include persons deported from the territories but later readmitted by Israel, as well as persons who live and work in East Jerusalem but also maintain residences in the territories.
The idea is that Israel can claim it is only negotiating with residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while the Palestinians can claim the delegation also includes representatives of East Jerusalem and the “Palestinian diaspora.”
Although Rabin has given Shamir additional time to decide, he backed Peres and other Laborites in rejecting a Likud offer to accept the American compromise in “return” for Labor’s pledge to desist from efforts to form an alternative government.
Whatever Shamir’s views are on the latest proposal, he must contend with Likud hard-liners, led by Deputy Premier David Levy and by Ariel Sharon, who resigned Feb. 19 from the Cabinet.
Levy accused Shamir and his supporters of backing a “fake” formula, worded so as to conceal major concessions by Israel.
He spoke Saturday night after a conclave of Likud ministers at Shamir’s home, which ended inconclusively and was to resume Monday.
Levy, Sharon and a few others who opposed Shamir’s peace initiative from the outset want to take the decision out of ministerial hands and put it to the party’s Knesset faction or its rank and file, represented by the 2,600-member Central Committee, which is chaired by Sharon.