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Israeli Cabinet Resoundingly Backs Participation in Mideast Conference

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Despite dire warnings from hard-liners, Israel’s Cabinet voted overwhelmingly Sunday to take part in the Middle East peace conference that the United States and Soviet Union will host next week in Madrid.

Invitations to the peace conference, which will open in the Spanish capital on Oct. 30, were extended Friday by U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Boris Pankin, whose meeting and joint news conference here were in themselves something of a historic event.

The announcement that Israel, its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians had all agreed to attend the peace conference was the culmination of intensive diplomatic activity begun by Baker in March, shortly after the end of the Persian Gulf War.

It capped the secretary’s eighth visit to the region, which had begun the previous weekend with somber news that Syria would not participate in a side conference on regional issue, such as arms control and water resources.

That the United States now expects the conference to result in a far-reaching settlement involving Israel, its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians was made clear by Baker and by the White House.

At his joint news conference with Pankin, the U.S. secretary spoke of the “hope of a new era in the Middle East,” one “marked by dialogue and not by violence,” by “cooperation and not by conflict.”

In Washington, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater made clear that what is being sought is “nothing less than a just, lasting and comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, to be achieved through a two-track approach of direct negotiations between Israel and the Arab states, and Israel and the Palestinians, based upon U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.”

Fitzwater said President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev would attend the opening ceremony of the conference, after which the conference would be conducted at the foreign ministers level.

The guests, who will have no flags or titles before them, are Israel, Syria, Lebanon and a joint Palestinian-Jordanian team. Two Arab nations, Egypt and Algeria, plan to attend only as observers.

Fitzwater said the invitations were cabled Friday to U.S. embassies in the capitals of the invited nations. He said Bush expressed hope for a prompt affirmative response from those invited.

Israel’s affirmative response came Sunday, when the Cabinet voted 16-3 to attend the conference, despite lingering misgivings about Palestinian representation and the degree to which the United States is prepared to play the role of “honest broker.”

DISARRAY IN TEHIYA PARTY

The vote came after seven hours of lively, often combative debate. In the end, the only members of the Cabinet opposing the conference were Ariel Sharon, the hard-line Likud minister of housing; Science Minister Yuval Ne’eman of the Tehiya party; and Rehavam Ze’evi, a minister without portfolio of the extremist Moledet party.

But Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan of the far-right Tsomet party voted with Shamir. The former army chief of staff said he was satisfied by the prime minister’s assurances and would support him until he detects a wavering on basic policy positions.

In a television interview Saturday, the outspoken housing minister called on Shamir and his top ministers to resign because, he said, they were leading the nation into dreadful danger.

The Cabinet vote threw Israel’s right-wing Tehiya party into disarray. It convened Sunday night in Tel Aviv, where two of its Knesset members, Geula Cohen and Elyakim Haetzni, demanded the party quit the Cabinet immediately.

Party leader Ne’eman threatened to quit politics altogether if the party membership sided with those two.

In the opposition camp, Labor Party Chairman Shimon Peres, just back from talks in Moscow with conference co-sponsor Gorbachev, warmly welcomed the government’s decision. He reiterated Labor’s pledge of support for Shamir, so long as the premier holds his course.

Meanwhile, preparations have quickened in the Prime Minister’s office and various government ministries for the conference plenary and the subsequent negotiations that will follow it.

SHAMIR AIDES TO REPRESENT ISRAEL

But the arrangements have already been marred by an angry feud between the prime minister’s aides and the Foreign Ministry over the allocation of responsibilities.

Foreign Minister David Levy is loudly protesting Shamir’s decision to place the leadership of the two key working teams — to negotiate with Syria and with the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation — in the hands of his own aides, rather than senior Foreign Ministry diplomats.

The two officials designated by Shamir for the tasks are his director general, Yossi Ben-Aharon, for the Syrian team, and Cabinet Secretary Elyakim Rubinstein for the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

A third team, to negotiate with Lebanon, has been placed under the leadership of the Defense Ministry, with hostage negotiator Uri Lubrani, Israel’s specialist in Lebanese affairs, being touted to lead it.

The only team marked for the Foreign Ministry, in fact, is the one that will deal with regional issues. Yosef Hadass, the ministry’s acting director general, is slated to represent Israel at the multilateral talks.

(JTA correspondent David Friedman in Washington contributed to this report.)

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