JERUSALEM (Feb. 3)
Brushing aside vocal opposition from his most powerful Cabinet colleagues, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir named Rehavam Ze’evi, leader of the far right-wing Moledet Party, to the government Sunday as a minister without portfolio.
Moledet’s two seats will give the government a more comfortable majority of 66 in the 120-member Knesset.
The 64-year-old Ze’evi, an Israel Defense Force reserve major general, has publicly and repeatedly called for Israel to enter the Persian Gulf war and strike back at the Scud missile sites in western Iraq.
Contending that the government’s policy of restraint, urged by the United States, has gravely eroded Israel’s deterrent credibility, Ze’evi declared Sunday that he would continue fighting for his view “from within.”
The fact that he will have a seat on the policy-making Inner Cabinet heightened fears from his opponents in that regard.
But the right-wing militant achieved notoriety at home and abroad long before the Gulf war by his advocacy of “voluntary transfer” of the Palestinian population out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a proposal sharply at odds with Likud policy and widely regarded as a euphemism for expulsion.
Opponents of Ze’evi’s appointment expressed serious concern that it would jeopardize Israel’s newly won international good will and impair any future peace efforts with the Palestinians.
But Shamir assured the Cabinet on Sunday that the government’s policies on both the war and the Palestinians would remain intact and unaffected by Ze’evi’s joining it.
Shamir, nevertheless, had to face down a near revolt in his 19-member Cabinet.
In a rare split with Shamir, his closest ally, Defense Minister Moshe Arens, spoke strongly against Ze’evi’s appointment and abstained in the Cabinet vote.
‘TOTALLY ABHORRENT’ IDEAS
In an interview later with the NBC-TV affiliate in New York, Arens described Ze’evi’s ideas as “totally abhorrent to the vast majority of Israelis.” He said if Ze’evi wants to be part of the government, “he will simply have to leave these ideas behind.”
Joining Arens in abstaining was another senior colleague, Finance Minister Yitzhak Moda’i.
Foreign Minister David Levy was the most senior member of the government to vote flatly against Ze’evi’s appointment. He warned that this Cabinet reshuffle at this time would weaken rather than strengthen the governing coalition.
Justice Minister Dan Meridor and Health Minister Ehud Olmert, veteran Likud loyalists, also voted against Ze’evi. Both made statements calling his “transfer” policy “morally wrong” as well as politically impractical.
Meridor was quoted as terming Ze’evi’s ideas “a moral abomination,” and Olmert stressed to the media that “transfer” is opposed to everything Likud traditionally has stood for and believed in.
Ze’evi’s joining the government gives “transfer” a certain legitimization and brings the idea into the political mainstream, despite the prime minister’s and the Cabinet’s disavowal, Olmert said.
Shamir was quoted as telling his young Cabinet proteges: “Do not grieve; that’s politics.”
Education and Culture Minister Zevulun Hammer of the National Religious Party supported Shamir. He explained to reporters later that he did so only because the prime minister had made an unequivocal statement at the Cabinet meeting that the government would never discuss, let alone endorse, the idea of “transfer.”
CONCERN ABOUT IMPACT ABROAD
Centrist and left-wing politicians, who only last week were praising the prime minister for his policy in the Gulf war, say they feel betrayed.
They maintain that by appointing Ze’evi to the government, Shamir has squandered much of the political success that his war policy has earned him abroad and has also undone the national consensus around that policy.
Media reports said Shamir was approached by key Diaspora Jewish leaders after the plan to appoint Ze’evi was leaked Friday to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. They urged him to think again and warned him of the likely damage to Israel’s standing overseas.
Some political observers said Shamir’s move was aimed principally at liberating him from dependency on any one small faction. Those observers suggested that he is chafing at his abrasive relationship with Moda’i and the finance minister’s small Zionist Renewal Faction.
Other theories linked the move to future diplomatic pressures on Israel. According to those theories, Shamir is positioning himself to stand up to U.S. or international demands after the war to negotiate a compromise with the Palestinians.
Ze’evi himself spoke of “the real war” that would face Israel in the future, which he called the war over Eretz Yisrael (the biblical Land of Israel). He said he would strengthen the government’s “patriotic stand.”
He dismissed his critics at home and abroad with a local aphorism: “The dogs bark — and the caravan moves on.”