News Analysis: Strong Statements by Shamir Indicate ‘no-blink’ Attitude Toward Washington

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, still honeymooning with his new government, is showing no sign whatsoever of blinking in what seems to be a showdown with Washington, particularly U.S. Secretary of State James Baker.

Oozing sarcasm Monday during an address to schoolchildren in Petach Tikvah, the premier chastised the United States for failing to sever its dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization in the wake of the May 30 attempted terrorist attack on Israel’s beaches, perpetrated by a constituent group of the PLO.

“The weeks go by, and they still can’t decide,” Shamir said. “They are still consulting in the corridors of power in Washington. They can’t decide whether to prove American credibility and uphold the principle that there can be no negotiations with those who engage in terrorism.”

The statement appeared to be his public response to the widely publicized rebuke Israel received last week from Baker, who, using sarcasm of his own, broadcast the White House telephone number and told the Israeli government to call “when you’re serious about peace.”

Baker’s tough words on Israel, made during an appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, appeared to be a direct reaction to hard-line statements on the peace process made by several mainstream Likud ministers in the new government.

Police Minister Ronni Milo, for instance, was quoted as saying that the Baker proposal for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Cairo was “no longer relevant,” a position echoed by Health Minister Ehud Olmert, another Likud moderate.

Shamir himself said last week that it would be pointless to talk to any Palestinian not willing to accept Israel’s offer of autonomy, or limited self-rule.

LEVY ADOPTS A SOFTER LINE

But this hard-line stance on the peace process is not all-pervasive in the new government. Paradoxically, a Likud hard-liner, Foreign Minister David Levy, has been adopting a more conciliatory approach.

Reports in the Israeli news media described Levy as offended and angry at the mission to Washington undertaken last week by Cabinet Secretary Elyakim Rubinstein, which was orchestrated without his knowledge.

Shortly after the government was formed last week, Rubinstein held meetings with John Kelly, the assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs; Robert Kimmitt, undersecretary of state for political affairs; and with Dennis Ross, director of the department’s policy planning staff.

According to Israeli press reports, Rubinstein told the State Department officials that Israel would now reject the whole idea of a dialogue with Palestinians in Cairo.

Rubinstein denied this on Sunday. And in Washington, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Embassy said Tuesday that the “only message” Rubinstein delivered was that Israel is prepared to work with the United States on advancing the peace process.

That appears to be closer to the image Levy would like to convey. Sources close to the foreign minister let it be known this week that, once he recuperates from a heart attack he suffered last week, Levy would like to arrange an early meeting with Baker.

He is said to be convinced that he can use his personal charm to prevent the U.S.-Israeli relationship from deteriorating further.

Levy also signaled that he would like to be invited to Cairo to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a gesture that has yet to be extended to Shamir himself. Levy conveyed this message Monday to the Egyptian ambassador, Mohammed Basiouny, whom he met at his hospital bedside in Afula.

Sources close to Levy are reportedly displeased with what they feel is a high-handed and unnecessarily hard-line posture projected by the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Yossi Ben-Aharon.

But it remains to be seen whether Levy’s debut into the diplomatic arena will indeed produce moderation in Likud policy-making.

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