JERUSALEM (Mar. 12)
A fighting speech by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and a unanimous vote at a Labor Party Central Committee session in Kfar Sava on Monday seemed to edge the national unity government closer than ever to the brink of dissolution.
The Central Committee empowered the party’s leadership bureau and its Knesset faction to take the “appropriate steps” in the wake of the Inner Cabinet’s failure Sunday to reply favorably to U.S. proposals on the peace process.
Labor had previously indicated that it would leave the government if the Inner Cabinet failed to take action on the peace proposals. Monday’s vote authorized the party’s leadership to do so, without stating it explicitly.
That is a tactical maneuver aimed at preventing Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir from firing the Labor ministers and forming an alternative government of his own.
The Central Committee vote came as Religious Affairs Minister Zevulun Hammer made a last-ditch effort to strike a compromise between Likud and Labor.
But that initiative seemed to peter out by the end of the day, when it elicited a less-than-enthusiastic reaction from the major parties. Even members of Hammer’s own National Religious Party were opposed to it.
The issue that has divided Likud and Labor is Secretary of State James Baker’s version of a plan to bring Israel and a Palestinian delegation to the negotiating table in Cairo, where they would discuss implementation of Shamir’s proposal for elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
BITTER WORDS OVER JERUSALEM
Baker, after consulting with the Egyptians and the Palestine Liberation Organization, has proposed that the Palestinian delegation include one or two former deportees and one or two residents of the West Bank who have homes or offices in East Jerusalem. This would meet Arab demands for representation of Palestinians in Jerusalem and outside of Israel.
The Likud bloc opposes the inclusion of East Jerusalem Arabs, claiming that allowing them to participate in either the Cairo talks or the subsequent elections could jeopardize the status of Israel’s united capital.
Labor has been more flexible on the issue, saying the 150,000 Palestinians who live there can participate in the elections, as long as they vote outside the city. But party officials have reacted angrily to attempts by Likud politicians in recent days to portray Labor as “softer” on Jerusalem’s status.
Vice Premier Shimon Peres, the Labor Party leader, told Central Committee delegates Monday evening that Likud had raised the Jerusalem issue to avoid making a tough decision on the peace process.
“Shamir tried to move toward peace, but his vehicle gave out on him,” Peres said. “The Likud is a broken-down car, with its wheels falling off.”
Rabin, who repeatedly has said that a unity government is the best hope for peace, launched a bitter attack of his own against Likud.
“The Likud is seeking to apply constraining clamps on us, and we will not have it,” the defense minister declared to tumultuous applause.
“Their question to us” on Jerusalem “is not worthy of our reply,” he said. “Who are they anyway? By what right do they presume to question us?”
SHAMIR COULD FIRE LABORITES
Peres said he was “proud of the way our movement is going into the next two or three days of the most serious decision-making.” He added, “All the efforts to erode and divide us have failed, and we are united and speak with one clear message.”
This was an obvious reference to his earlier differences with Rabin over whether the moment was right to secede from the unity government. His implication was that now any such differences have been ironed out.
Speculation among political pundits focused Monday night on whether Shamir would exercise his right to fire all of the Labor ministers from the government immediately.
If he did so, the rump government would presumably lose the confidence votes Thursday. But in that event, ministers of the Likud, Shas and NRP would stay in power as a “transitional government,” pending the formation of a new coalition or, failing that, national elections.
In order to achieve that scenario, Shamir must fire the Laborites by Tuesday morning at the latest, so that the 48-hour statutory cooling-off period is concluded before the no-confidence debate Thursday.
Political insiders say Industry and Trade Minister Moshe Nissim is pressing the premier to take this course, but that other aides warn it could enhance Labor’s prospects of forming an alternative government with the religious and left-wing parties.
In Washington, the State Department urged Israel to push ahead with a vote on the Baker plan.
“We recognize that this is very, very difficult within Israel for them to reach an answer,” said department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler. But she added, “The time to act is now.”
“We are waiting for a vote from the Israeli government,” she said. “They haven’t voted yes, they haven’t voted no. All that has happened is that they haven’t voted.”
(JTA correspondent Howard Rosenberg in Washington contributed to this report.)