JERUSALEM (Oct. 28)
While history alone will judge Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s performance as Israel’s spokesman for peace on the international stage this week, there is little question that his political performance at home so far has been masterful.
As he prepared to fly to Madrid as head of the Israeli delegation to the Middle East peace conference opening there Wednesday, the 75-year-old Likud leader completely dominated Israel’s political scene.
He adroitly isolated and is leaving behind his two principal Likud rivals: Foreign Minister David Levy, who is too moderate for Shamir’s taste, and the hawkish housing minister, Ariel Sharon, whom he sees as too strident.
Shamir has won the wary trust of his far-right coalition partners, who view peace talks with the Arabs — particularly the Palestinians — as a step toward surrender. For the time being, they are staying in his government.
He also appears to have cowed the opposition Labor Party. Shamir vetoed their choice of a Labor representative in Madrid, brushed off their plea to freeze settlement-building while peace talks are under way and admonished them, in the name of patriotism, to silence partisan criticism while Israel negotiates with its foes.
Israel, for its part, has adopted a stance of strict compliance with the conference rules. And it has already complained that the Palestinians seem to be bending those rules.
The 14-member Palestinian team will negotiate under the umbrella of the Jordanian delegation, avoiding the illusion of Palestinian independence.
But the head of the Palestinian group, Dr. Haider Abdel-Shafi from the Gaza Strip, has been allocated 45 minutes for his opening speech, the same as the heads of delegations of sovereign states.
Israel has protested that accommodation on the grounds that it would confer on the Palestinians the status of a separate delegation.
The Israeli government is more seriously disturbed about a statement made last week by one member of the Palestinian delegation, Saeb Erekat, who publicly identified himself with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Israel has a U.S. guarantee that it will not have to negotiate with anyone linked to the PLO.
But anxious to avoid the finger of blame should the conference abort for any reason, Israel has given no indication it will create a crisis around that issue.
Yossi Ben-Aharon, director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, who will be one of Israel’s chief negotiators in Madrid, hinted in an interview Monday that Israel would not make an issue of Erekat’s remarks as long as they are not repeated.
TEHIYA TO REMAIN IN GOVERNMENT
Shamir hand-picked the Israeli team going to Madrid. With the exception of one Laborite, all are Likud loyalists committed to Shamir’s program.
As a group, however, they are not as hardline as might have been expected. And Shamir himself told The New York Times in an interview published last Friday that he was prepared to take risks for peace.
By shunting aside professional diplomats in favor of two of his most trusted and ideologically compatible aides to conduct the most delicate negotiations, Shamir succeeded in outraging Foreign Minister Levy.
Levy, who had expected to head the Israeli delegation, refused to play second fiddle. He announced he would not go to Madrid, and Shamir made no effort to change his mind.
Sharon, one of the three Cabinet ministers who voted against taking part in the conference, was isolated when the other two changed their minds.
Yuval Ne’eman of Tehiya and Rehavam Ze’evi of Moledet have decided to remain in the coalition for the moment, reversing an earlier threat to leave when the conference opened.
Without them, Shamir’s parliamentary majority would have been shaved too close for comfort on the eve of an international peace conference.
But Ne’eman, who is minister of science and energy, prevailed upon the Tehiya militants to withdraw their plan to defect and agree to stick with the government a while longer.
Ne’eman, whose international repute as a physicist confers a cachet on the party, withdrew his decision to resign from Tehiya after it agreed to stay in the government.
ISRAELI PEOPLE BACKING TALKS
Tehiya Knesset member Gershon Shafat, who mediated the crisis, rationalized that since the first phase of the Madrid conference would be ceremonial, it was too early to leave the coalition. When the conference got down to substantive issues, there would be time enough to quit, he argued.
The same reasoning apparently prevailed in Moledet, whose leader, Ze’evi, holds no Cabinet portfolio.
While Moledet’s platform calls for expelling the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he and others of his ideological stripe apparently are convinced that Shamir can be trusted to defend what they perceive to be Israel’s interests.
Moreover, a public opinion poll published last Friday in the mass-circulation daily Yediot Achronot showed an overwhelming 91 percent of the population in favor of Israel going to Madrid. Given such popular sentiment, right-wing politicians realized that opposing the conference could be a political error.
Sharon remains the only major political figure who refuses to budge. But he has been left in the cold and may be contemplating an alliance of convenience with the frustrated Levy against Shamir.
The prime minister could encounter internal political difficulties in the long run, though, if he is required to make substantive decisions.
Meanwhile, he will go to Madrid with the blessings not only of his natural allies on the right but his opponents on the left, as well.
Shamir met Monday with a Labor Party delegation consisting of party Chairman Shimon Peres; former Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin; Haim Ramon, chairman of Labor’s Knesset faction; and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, deputy chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
LABOR URGES SETTLEMENTS FREEZE
Labor had proposed Ben-Eliezer, a former coordinator of government affairs in the administered territories, as its representative on the negotiating team. But Shamir refused.
Likud instead proposed Laborite Edna Solodar, considered a hawk in her party. But the Labor leaders refused to accept Likud’s “diktat.”
As matters stand, the only Labor Party member at Madrid will be Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel’s ambassador to Spain, who could not very well have been excluded, given the talks’ location.
Shamir would not even consider Peres’ proposal that Israel freeze settlement-building if the Arabs lift their 43-year-old economic boycott of Israel.
Instead he told the Laborites to “lower the volume of their criticism” during the peace conference.
Shamir seemed untroubled by the mass demonstration in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, organized by Peace Now and the left-wing Knesset factions.
It drew a crowd of about 30,000, according to police estimates. Participants supported Shamir’s decision to go to Madrid, but they urged him to be flexible and be willing to trade land for peace, a principle Likud opposes.
Defense Minister Moshe Arens branded the demonstrators “unpatriotic.”