Shamir faces fight over talks but is expected to win

August 04, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- While he seems assured of eventually getting his way, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir can count on an acrimonious debate when he seeks Cabinet approval today for Israel's participation in Mideast peace talks.

In other words, it should be business as usual for Mr. Shamir.

If almost unanimous forecasts are correct, extreme right-wing parties will threaten to walk out of the government, and perhaps even carry out their threat -- but will be unable to prevent Mr. Shamir from winning an endorsement of his conditional yes to a U.S.-brokered plan for Arab-Israeli peace talks.

If all goes according to plan, Mr. Shamir also will have a license to back out of the deal, unless U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III resolves a series of procedural issues in Israel's favor.

The United States and the Soviet Union have proposed that the talks begin in October, starting with a regional conference and followed by face-to-face negotiations involving Israel, Arab states and Palestinians.

For Mr. Shamir, the results should prove the virtue of patience.

In 1990, he headed a government that collapsed when he objected to Palestinians from East Jerusalem playing any role in the peace process.

One year later, he is still prime minister and still rules out any role for Palestinians from East Jerusalem -- as well as any participation by the Palestine Liberation Organization -- and he has apparently persuaded the United States to search for some means to accommodate his terms.

But for even his conditional acceptance of talks, Mr. Shamir faces opposition from the extreme right-wing parties that are his ostensible partners and from within his own party, the Likud.

Housing Minister Ariel Sharon leads the opposition within the Likud. Mr. Sharon, an ardent champion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, pledges to vote against the U.S. plan and may provoke a split in the party.

"If I thought we were speaking of a conference that would bring peace, I would support it," Mr. Sharon said last week. "To my regret, it's a conference that will lead to war." He has not said whether he will quit the government.

He and right-wing parties warn that the conference and direct Arab-Israeli talks eventually will force Israel to give up part or all of the Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza Strip, territory captured in 1967.

But Mr. Shamir's opponents are unsure of their tactics. Leaders of the Tehiya faction are threatening to pull out of the governing coalition. Members of an even more extreme party, Moledet, say they will stay.

"We will not remain in the government," said Yuval Ne'eman, minister of science and leader of the Tehiya party. "It's a matter of timing. We will decide on the right time to resign."

"We should say no to the Shamir government," said Geula Cohen, the party's second-in-command. "This yes to Baker means yes to a trap, yes to concessions."

But while some of Mr. Shamir's partners oppose him, the largest opposition party in Parliament now is supporting him. The left-of-center Labor Party, second in size only to the Likud, promises to back the prime minister as long as he continues with the peace process.

"I welcome the government's decision," said Shimon Peres, leader of the Labor Party. "We will support his position from outside of the government. We will support the peace process without any conditions."

Mr. Shamir has set several conditions for Israel to participate in the peace talks:

* Israel rejects participation by Palestinians from East Jerusalem, out of concern that the presence of an East Jerusalem resident would weaken Israel's claim to sovereignty over the entire city.

* Israel will not negotiate with Palestinians from outside the occupied territories, for fear that their participation would imply that "outside" Palestinians could negotiate for the right to return to Israel and reclaim property.

* Israel wants the ground rules for the talks spelled out in a memorandum prepared by the United States, a memorandum that is to repeat in writing Mr. Baker's assurances to Mr. Shamir about how the peace talks are to be run.

Israeli officials say they want the memorandum to specify that the opening conference will last no more than 36 hours and that it will lead to several, simultaneous sets of face-to-face talks involving Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinians.

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