Shamir, Trying to Preserve Coalition, Denies Any Concessions to Palestinians

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir tried to reassure restive members of his Cabinet on Sunday that the Israeli delegation to the peace talks in Washington has made absolutely “no concessions” to the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

The talks were originally scheduled to resume Jan. 7, after failing to reach agreement on even the most elementary procedural matters before they recessed last month.

But the Arab delegations did not show up, in protest over Israel’s decision to deport 12 Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

There were reports last week that the Jordanians and Palestinians would resume talks with the Israelis on Sunday. But on Friday, the Syrians reportedly persuaded the two delegations to wait until Monday, so that all of the Arab delegations could resume talks simultaneously.

Hard-liners, such as Likud’s Ariel Sharon, who opposed the bilateral talks from the outset, are upset by news that the Israeli negotiators have presented some written proposals to the Palestinians to get the process under way.

Yuval Ne’eman of Tehiya and Rehavam Ze’evi of Moledet have threatened to pull their far-right parties out of Shamir’s coalition government the moment the subject of autonomy for the Palestinians is raised at the talks.

ELECTORAL REFORM BILL IN TROUBLE

According to reports leaked from the Cabinet room, Shamir tried to persuade them that the upcoming round would continue to be largely on procedural matters, such as the venue of future sessions. Israeli negotiators have said they plan to leave Washington by Wednesday evening, leaving little time for substantive discussions.

But one of Shamir’s closest aides, Yossi Ahimeir, hinted strongly Sunday that early elections may be inevitable.

Ahimeir, Shamir’s chief of staff, said the government is committed by its policy guidelines to an autonomy plan for the Palestinians.

While Shamir is opposed in principle to early elections, he is aware that the fragility of his coalition may force them to be held before the statutory date in November.

Politicians and pundits have been increasingly convinced of late that the elections will be held this spring or summer. There have been persistent rumors of behind-the-scenes consultations between Likud and the opposition Labor Party on a joint initiative to dissolve parliament and set an election date.

Meanwhile, the political community almost unanimously predicts that the electoral reform bill, even should it survive determined efforts to kill it in the Knesset, cannot be enacted quickly enough to be operative in the next elections.

A key clause providing for direct election of the prime minister is in trouble. It survived its second reading by a single vote last week.

Opponents, which include most of Likud and the religious bloc, have mobilized their forces to defeat it at the third and final reading this week.

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