JERUSALEM (Dec. 24)
As Israel and the Palestinian Authority moved closer this week to concluding an agreement on Hebron, new voices in the governing coalition spoke out in favor of Palestinian sovereignty.
These voices appeared to amplify ongoing efforts by some Likud Knesset members to form a national unity government.
A unity government, its proponents assert, would present a broad Israeli consensus in the final-status negotiations with the Palestinians.
The idea of a unity government appears to be gaining increasing support among some top Likud ministers who have become increasingly disenchanted with Benjamin Netanyahu’s performance as premier.
But Ehud Barak, would-be successor to Shimon Peres as Labor Party leader, has strongly criticized his party members who have been talking with Likud Knesset members in search for common ground on the final-status issues. These issues include Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, Palestinian statehood and refugees.
The final-status talks are expected to begin in earnest after Israelis and Palestinians pen an accord that will turn over most of the West Bank town to Palestinian self-rule.
On the issue of Palestinian sovereignty, Israel’s major political parties widely diverge. While Labor dropped its opposition to a Palestinian state shortly before the May elections, the Likud remains adamant.
However, this week’s remarks on the subject by National Religious Party Knesset member Avraham Stern and Gesher Knesset member Yehuda Lankri, signaled possible erosion in the stance among Israeli conservatives.
Stern, a longtime leader of the National Religious Party’s religious kibbutz movement and a first-term Knesset member, said he would accept a Palestinian state if Israel were to retain “most of the settlements” under its sovereignty.
But he added that he was prepared to forgo “problematic settlements.”
Stern said he wanted his party, which is a member of the coalition, to be involved in shaping the peace settlement with the Palestinians. He warned that the NRP’s present hard-line positions would force the party to the sidelines.
The NRP leadership reacted strongly to Stern’s remarks.
Knesset member Hanan Porat, the party’s faction chairman, demanded that Stern relinquish his Knesset seat because he had not divulged to the voters before the May elections that these were his views.
But Stern showed no sign of backing down. “The NRP platform is not Holy Writ. It can be changed,” said Stern in response to Porat’s statement.
Stern apparently was prompted to take his stance after David Bar-Illan, a senior adviser to Netanyahu, said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post that Israel could agree to a future Palestinian entity that would be something between an autonomy and a state.
Although Bar-Illan subsequently stated that what he had told the Post was his personal view and not the government’s position, it was not far from Netanyahu’s recent references to Andorra and Puerto Rico as possible models for a Palestinian entity.
The other coalition Knesset member embracing the idea of a state, Yehuda Lankri, is the former Israeli ambassador to France and a close friend of Foreign Minister David Levy, who heads the Gesher Party that joined with Likud in the May elections.
“I believe a Palestinian state should come into being,” Lankri told a group of Labor Party doves. “The idea of a Palestinian state provokes less and less fears and rejection in Israeli public opinion.”
Lankri said he is in “full support” of the Oslo Accords, the Israeli- Palestinian peace agreements, and that Levy, too, backs the implementation of accords.
Meanwhile, Minister of Infrastructure Ariel Sharon has deliberately raised the public profile of his ongoing consultations with Labor’s Peres over the creation of a unity government.
Sharon said in several recent interviews that the difficult state of the nation required broad consensus in government.
Labor and Likud must both be prepared to compromise, Sharon said. “Neither can get everything it would ideally want.”
Sharon denied media reports that his discussions with Peres envisaged a Cabinet, under Netanyahu, in which he would become defense minister and Peres would be foreign minister.
“We have not gone into that subject at all,” he said of his discussions with Peres.
On a parallel track, talks are continuing between teams of Likud and Labor Knesset members. These talks, led by Michael Eitan of Likud and Yossi Beilin of Labor are intended to draft language on key policy issues that could form the basis for a joint platform.
Likud sources say the unity efforts are being encouraged by dissatisfaction among the party leadership with Netanyahu’s performance as prime minister. Top ministers, including Finance Minister Dan Meridor, are said to be ready to forgo their portfolios in order to bring about a unity Cabinet.
The dissatisfaction is said to center on the premier’s decision-making patterns, and especially on his poor relations with senior officials in the army and intelligence services.
In Labor, meanwhile, Barak flayed “those who are ready to crawl into the Netanyahu Cabinet.”
Speaking to party activists in Tel Aviv, Barak, who served as foreign minister until the May election, argued that it was contradictory for Labor to blame the Netanyahu government for Israel’s worsening international condition, and at the same time to seek admission into that government.
Barak’s remarks were seen as a swipe at Peres, the main Labor advocate of the unity scenario.