JERUSALEM, Oct. 1 (JTA) — As the latest Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire teetered this week on the brink of collapse, tensions rose to new heights within Israel’s unity coalition and defense establishment.
Shimon Peres, the foreign minister and the senior Labor Party figure in the government, has been at the center of these tensions, and he may soon have to face growing calls from fellow ministers for him to leave the government.
Peres was quoted as faulting the army for the steep rise in Palestinian fatalities that followed his Sept. 26 meeting with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat at the Gaza airport, where the two sides formally proclaimed the new cease-fire.
While Peres has denied the quotes attributed to him, there is little doubt that he and his followers are bitterly critical of what they see as the army’s trigger-happiness at this crucial juncture in the conflict.
While death toll figures alone cannot tell the whole story, the fact is that Palestinian fatalities rose markedly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks against the United States, and have continued to rise since the Peres-Arafat meeting.
Indeed, a 16-year-old Palestinian youth was killed during a firefight between the army and Palestinian gunmen that took place within earshot of the Peres-Arafat meeting.
And in an incident that took place Sunday in the West Bank, two Palestinian workers were shot dead and six others injured when army troops at a roadblock opened fire on a taxi that they said refused orders to stop.
After the soldiers opened fire on the vehicle, the workers tumbled out and sought to flee. The soldiers picked them off. None of the workers was armed or had any terrorist record or link.
According to the criticism emanating from the Peres camp, the Israel Defense Force is not giving the cease-fire a chance.
Others in the Peres camp are meanwhile aiming their criticisms at the hawks in the government.
They charge that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has not given Peres’ cease-fire effort any convincing personal and political backing.
Sharon has not, they say, acted to create an overall atmosphere congenial to reducing the intensity of the armed conflict and resuming the diplomatic process.
The prime minister is said to be torn between pressures from his own hard-liners in the government and pressures from Washington, where the overriding consideration is to put the Israeli-Palestinian violence on a back burner pending the successful construction of an international anti-terror coalition that includes Arab and Islamic nations.
“No wonder the soldier at the road block is torn and confused,” one seasoned observer mused, “if the prime minister is too.”
The deep division in the government was dramatically underscored Monday, when a car bomb exploded in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem, but caused no injuries.
Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility, and Peres was quick to condemn Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah as “the bin Laden of the Middle East.”
But the hawkish minister of public security, Uzi Landau, took a far different tack. Noting that the government latest extension of the cease-fire would end in 24 hours, he said Israel would then have to act without letup to give the terrorists no respite.
It was clear that as far as Landau was concerned, “the terrorists” included not only the three organizations that Peres had focused on, but the Palestinian Authority itself.
Landau and other hawkish ministers are now openly talking of forming a Cabinet caucus whose purpose would be to bring about the removal of Peres from the government.
They believe — and they may well be right — that they can detach Peres from his party, and force him to leave while the other Labor ministers stay on, thereby preserving the unity framework that is so important to Sharon at home and abroad.
For his part, Arafat has discerned the fissures on the Israeli side and is pointing them up in all his diplomatic conversations.
The Palestinian line is that Sharon and the hawks have given the Israeli army tacit permission to shoot and kill indiscriminately, while the Palestinian Authority is doing its best to observe the cease-fire.
Israeli intelligence sources say the Palestinian Authority is doing more than in the past. But they claim that Palestinian officials are unwilling to arrest terrorists, which Israel considers the chief criterion of good faith.
During their meeting last week, Peres handed Arafat a list of 108 people that Israel says are actively engaged in terrorism. No one has since been arrested or incarcerated by the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinian sources say it is politically impossible for Arafat to make wholesale arrests of Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives, as he did back in the mid-1990s following a wave of bus bombings inside Israel.
These sources maintain that the two fundamentalist movements would abide by the cease-fire, without of course formally accepting it, if only the IDF would enable it to take hold.
But the bomb in Jerusalem on Monday suggests otherwise.
If the cease-fire collapses — as it surely would have had the Jerusalem bomb claimed lives — some observers predict an unprecedentedly aggressive Israeli response.
On the political plane, this scenario could well spell the end of the unity government, at least in its present form.
And even if only Peres leaves while other Labor ministers remain, the departure of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate could leave the government’s image, both at home and abroad, seriously compromised.