JERUSALEM (Oct. 21)
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is leading Israel to the Middle East peace conference in Madrid next week confident that his coalition majority will hold at least through the formal opening Oct. 30.
But after that, once the separate direct talks with individual Arab states and the Palestinians begin, the future of both the peace process and the Likud-led Israeli government is unpredictable.
Already, the far-right Tehiya party announced it will quit the government, splitting with its leader, Science and Energy Minister Yuval Ne’eman, who opposed the peace talks but wanted to remain in the coalition for the moment.
The other far-right factions are staying in the government for now. So are Likud hard-liners, despite ominous rumblings from their midst.
Israel’s internal political outlook after the Cabinet voted overwhelmingly Sunday to attend the conference is therefore as uncertain as that of the peace process itself.
It would have been impossible to resist the blandishments of the United States after Secretary of State James Baker and his Soviet counterpart, Boris Pankin, issued the invitations Friday, before Shamir was able to consult his Cabinet.
But pundits are wary about the future of a conference convened under relentless pressure from the United States, reinforced by its now junior partner, the Soviet Union.
Some are unwilling to predict what will happen to the bilateral negotiations that are to begin four days after the ceremonial opening, according to the conference protocols. Others foresee crises and ruptures down the line.
SHAMIR WON’T SACK SHARON
Shamir’s political strength has been confirmed, at least in the short term. A Cabinet revolt launched by his arch rival, Ariel Sharon, got nowhere Sunday.
The housing minister, who makes no secret of his hope to replace Shamir, demanded that the premier, Foreign Minister David Levy and Defense Minister Moshe Arens tender their resignations.
“Show that you are not Eduard Benes,” he thundered, an allusion to the leader of Czechoslovakia who was betrayed to Hitler by Britain and France at the 1938 Munich conference.
Shamir made clear, however, that he did not intend to fire Sharon, “I think I act in accordance with circumstances and needs,” he told reporters, intimating that for political reasons, he feels unable to sack the recalcitrant minister.
Sharon’s histrionics failed to arouse any ringing response from within his own party.
Most Likud Knesset members are giving Shamir and his negotiating team — made up of his closest aides — their solid support, despite grave misgivings about the peace conference.
There are exceptions. Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud deputy foreign minister, warned Saturday night that Israel “must prepare now for the collapse of the conference.”
But political circles interpreted his remarks as more an expression of his personal frustration over playing no central role in policy-making, than a threat to the prime minister.
The hard-line Netanyahu, a former ambassador to the United Nations, has poor relations with his boss, David Levy, who does not want to include him in the delegation to Madrid.
NE’EMAN QUITTING POLITICS
The situation with Tehiya is not considered an immediate threat. The party, which has spearheaded the right-wing assault on Shamir’s policy, suffered a wrenching internal upheaval.
Ne’eman, a physicist of international repute, announced Sunday night that he was quitting political life to return to science. Departing from Tehiya, he is expected to resign his Cabinet seat.
The issue that split the party was whether to bolt the coalition over the government’s agreement to attend the Madrid conference. The party’s three-member Knesset faction was all for leaving.
Although Ne’eman was one of the three Cabinet ministers who voted against participation in the conference, he counseled patience to his party. There would be ample time to secede, he said, when the talks turn to territorial questions.
But Ne’eman was overruled Sunday night by the party’s Central Committee. It resolved to leave the government as soon as the conference opens next week.
The two other far-right parties are staying put.
Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan, who heads the two-man Tsomet faction, in fact voted with the Cabinet majority.
Rehavam Ze’evi, a minister without portfolio, voted with Sharon and Ne’eman. But his Moledet party will stay in the coalition for now, he said.
The right-wing parties lack the combined strength to force the government to resign. To accomplish that, they would need the Labor Party. But Labor is determined to prop Shamir up as long as he stays on course to peace, even if he should lose his majority in the Knesset.
At any rate, even if a government falls, it stays in power as a caretaker regime until a new coalition is formed or new elections are held.
Should such a scenario unfold, Shamir would be politically and constitutionally able to proceed with his present policy if he so desired.