Prime Minister Shimon Peres moved to dismiss hard-line minister Ariel Sharon from his government Wednesday, plunging Israel's 14-month-old coalition government into a crisis with still uncertain ramifications for the recently revived Middle East peace process and the country's precarious economic recovery.
Peres announced his intention to oust Sharon, 57, a former general and architect of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, in a letter read to ministers at an extraordinary Cabinet meeting Wednesday evening. He acted after a blistering attack that Sharon made Monday on Peres' efforts to open peace negotiations with Jordan.
Mass Defection Threatened
Sharon's Cabinet colleagues from the right-wing Likud Bloc, principal partner in the broad coalition with Peres' Labor Alignment, vowed to leave the government if the prime minister goes through with his dismissal threat.
However, ministers representing some small religious parties in the coalition said Wednesday that they still hope to mediate a compromise between the two big political blocs and save the government.
Other Likud officials were urging Sharon, who now serves as minister of trade and industry, to apologize to Peres. Said one: "My personal advice to him was: 'Listen, an apology will be forgotten in two months. If you'll be out of the Cabinet, if Likud will be out of the Cabinet, that will be remembered for longer.' "
Significantly, Peres did not present Sharon with the formal, three-line dismissal letter he brought with him to the Cabinet meeting. Under Section 21A of Israel's Basic Law on Government, the firing of a minister takes effect 48 hours after he receives written notice from the prime minister.
Officials on all sides of the controversy were still in crisis meetings late Wednesday night. And Israel television reported in its final newscast that Peres had set a deadline today for Sharon to retract half a dozen specific statements and issue a "clear, sincere apology."
If efforts to reach a compromise fail and the government collapses, Peres is expected first to try to form a narrow coalition with the left wing and with religious parties. Failing that, there would probably be new elections by spring.
The last general election here, in July, 1984, left neither Labor nor Likud with enough of an edge to form a government, and it set the stage for the current, highly unusual "national unity" coalition that joined the two big blocs and several smaller parties.
The unity-coalition agreement contains a unique "rotation" provision under which Peres and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the Likud leader, are to exchange jobs next October.
Exclusion of Shamir Preferred
Peres' Labor colleagues, buoyed by his strong standing in recent public opinion polls, have made no secret of the fact they would like to break the coalition and thus avoid rotating Shamir into the prime minister's job.
Labor is also encouraged by polls indicating general public approval of Peres' foreign policy. A poll published by the independent newspaper Hadashot on Sunday showed that 65% of Israelis favor peace talks with Jordan.
While Likud leaders suggested that Peres is taking an uncompromising stand regarding Sharon merely for personal political gain, the prime minister defended his action on grounds of national interest.
He charged in a six-page statement distributed to Cabinet ministers Wednesday that Sharon has violated the law on collective government responsibility by repeatedly criticizing decisions of the Cabinet and Parliament.
"No prime minister, no government, no parliament--actually, no nation--can stand by and see every rule of conduct being broken, every concept of collective responsibility being shattered without doing anything," agreed Amnon Rubenstein, communications minister and a Peres supporter. "You simply can't run a government like that."
While Peres said that Sharon has ignored official warnings going back at least to August, the immediate cause of Wednesday's crisis were remarks Sharon made Monday during a meeting with Likud activists in Haifa.
He accused Peres of acting "with unparalleled cynicism, with disregard for every accepted administrative norm" in his efforts to advance the Middle East peace process.
Sharon charged that the prime minister failed to give explicit commitments that he will not deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization and that he continues to pursue secret contacts with Jordan despite what he charged are terrorist attacks being orchestrated against Israel from PLO bases in that country.
Along with other Likud ministers, Sharon is demanding that Peres clarify previous statements that Israel would agree to an international forum for peace talks as long as they lead to direct negotiations with King Hussein's government.
Sharon issued what Labor ministers characterized as a halfhearted apology for his Haifa remarks on Wednesday, but Peres rejected it.
"I feel it is right to make clear that if what I said has been construed as a direct insult to the prime minister, Mr. Shimon Peres, I hereby express my apologies to him," Sharon said. "Nonetheless, my opinions on the substantive political issues remain unchanged."
Question of 'Full Loyalty'
Peres was said to be demanding a statement expressing Sharon's "full loyalty" to him.
Israel's 1981 Basic Law on Government gives the prime minister absolute authority to fire a minister. Peres and Shamir specifically waived that right in their coalition agreement, stipulating that neither, as prime minister, would exercise it without the consent of the other.
However, in a meeting with Shamir on Wednesday morning, Peres argued that Sharon had violated the law of collective government responsibility. "My duty as prime minister is to honor the law and to honor the (coalition) agreement," Israel radio quoted the Labor Party chief as saying. "But when one contradicts the other, it is my duty to uphold the law."
Since Shamir refused to dismiss Sharon, Peres argued, it was his responsibility to do so.
Labor officials who have been pressing for Peres to break the coalition said it is important that the crisis come within the next few weeks. If Labor is forced to hold new elections, it wants to do so by May, and since the law stipulates that there be 100 days' notice before any balloting, Parliament would have to call for elections by February to meet that deadline.
Labor opposes a later vote because so many of its traditionally better-off constituents travel abroad in the summer that it fears a delay could cost it several parliamentary seats.
There are differing opinions on why Sharon has continued to invite a crisis by his public criticism of Peres. One is that he, too, wants to break the government in his drive to oust Shamir as leader of Likud.
In this theory, Sharon would rather see Peres stay on as prime minister than have Shamir take over under the rotation agreement and use the post to position his own candidate--former Defense Minister Moshe Arens--to succeed him.
Sharon cannot openly challenge Shamir for the party leadership with the coalition government still functioning since the rotation agreement applies personally to Shamir. But with the coalition broken, Sharon would be free to take on the Likud leader at an important party convention scheduled in January.
One Likud member of Parliament, Ehud Olmert, rejected this conspiracy theory in an interview Wednesday night. "There is no doubt in my mind that this was not a calculated crisis--definitely not by Sharon," he said. "Sharon proved it by apologizing."
Why, then, did the former general risk breaking the government by again attacking Peres?
"I think he was carried away," Olmert said. "It happens to the guy. This is one of his problems. That's one thing. Another thing is that he is genuinely concerned" about the turn the peace process has taken.
'Sharon Despises Us'
Labor's Abba Eban, chairman of Parliament's key Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and a longtime Israeli Cabinet minister and ambassador, added that Sharon "really does despise all of us, and especially Peres."
Eban said efforts to open negotiations with Jordan are "very delicate" and added that Peres would like to avoid new elections, in part "because the peace process can't survive electioneering."
In addition to its potential impact on the renewed Mideast peace process, a government crisis here could disrupt Israel's efforts to shore up its economy.
Likud Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai said a change in his post at this stage of the recovery program would be "disastrous."
Communications Minister Rubenstein agreed that breaking the government "is not a step that can be taken easily." Nevertheless, he told Israel radio, he has urged Peres to fire Sharon.