JERUSALEM (Aug. 5)
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir began his summer vacation Monday, leaving the next phase of discussions on the peace process to senior aides, working together with U.S. officials.
Cabinet Secretary Elyakim Rubinstein and the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Yosef Ben-Aharon, were to begin work Tuesday on a “memorandum of understanding” with an American team of Middle East experts.
The U.S. team is led by Dan Kurtzer, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, and Aaron Miller, a member of the State Department’s policy planning staff.
The memorandum is expected to summarize the various agreements reached these past months between Shamir and U.S. Secretary of State James Baker on the modalities of the Middle East peace conference that the United States and Soviet Union hope to host in October.
The three main issues expected to be covered in the document are the role of the U.N. observer, the question of reconvening the plenary once direct talks begin, and the nature of Palestinian representation.
On this last point, Israeli officials maintain there is full accord between Israel and the United States that the Palestinians in the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation must not include a representative of East Jerusalem nor a representative of the Palestinian “diaspora,” meaning those who live outside the administered territories.
The Israelis say the Americans’ task now is to persuade the Palestinians to accept these restrictions. To that end, Baker spent last weekend enlisting the help of North African leaders, who have close ties to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
PEACE SETTLEMENT IN MONTHS?
The memorandum is unlikely to be specific on substantive issues — such as territorial compromise or the status of Jerusalem — given that the United States is working on parallel documents with other conference participants and must preserve its own role as an honest broker.
Still, the Israeli side hopes to get at least a reiteration of Washington’s on-the-record opposition to a separate Palestinian state.
The White House has expressed the belief that an Arab-Israeli settlement could be achieved within months of the start of a peace conference.
In Washington, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater made this assessment Monday when he was asked to give a reasonable time frame for a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Fitzwater said it could be “any point in the future. But if you’re asking for a likely time frame, I would say the most likely is the next several months.”
Although President Bush has said the anticipated conference would take place in October, he gave neither the exact date nor a location.
Fitzwater denied that any secret agreements have been made with the Arabs or Israelis to bring them to the talks.
“We have made no secret deals on end results,” he said. But he added, “Obviously we’ve had a lot of secret talks about these things.”
Meanwhile, Shamir’s ruling Likud bloc has been rocked by internal fireworks stemming from Sunday’s Cabinet debate over the peace conference, which the ministers voted 16-3 to endorse.
DEMANDS FOR SHARON’S OUSTER
But Shamir’s aides said the prime minister is not paying attention, at least at this stage, to mounting demands from some of his supporters to fire Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, who gave a blistering attack of the government’s peace policy at Sunday’s session.
Sharon accused Shamir of withholding information from the Cabinet and from the nation, of “amateurish” handling of the negotiations with the U.S. secretary of state, and of leading Israel into a conference that might well trigger a war, according to reports emanating from the Cabinet room.
Sharon made clear Monday he has no intention of resigning of his own accord.
Shamir is legally entitled to dismiss a minister and politically empowered to fire a Likud minister. And he has used this power in the past.
But sources close to him say he does not feel the need for a showdown with Sharon, whom the premier openly accused Sunday of “an unbridled urge to seek power.”
Observers point to the premier’s strong standing, both within the coalition and among the opposition parties, which have asked that they, too, be given an opportunity to express their support for the government’s decision to attend the peace conference.
By beginning his vacation Monday, Shamir signaled that he is not concerned about a loss of support on the government’s right flank.
Aides said the premier and his wife would rest at home, with Shamir catching up on his reading. His preferences at the moment, they said, are biographies about such great world leaders as Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.
(JTA correspondent David Friedman in Washington contributed to this report.)