Israel Faces Showdown on Scandal : Ouster of Shamir Demanded; Likud Issues a Challenge
An Israeli security scandal stemming from the 1984 killing of two Arab prisoners is turning into a full-blown political showdown, with one Cabinet member calling openly Sunday for Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, leader of the Likud Bloc, to resign from the governing coalition.
Four other ministers from the centrist Labor Alignment and allied parties threatened to leave their posts rather than serve under Shamir if the latter, who is also alternate prime minister in the so-called national-unity coalition Cabinet, rotates into the top job as he is scheduled to do next October.
Meanwhile, Shamir’s Likud allies dared Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who heads Labor, and his supporters to break up the fragile partnership between the two big parties over the security affair, saying that the Israeli public would side with the right-wing Likud if new elections were called.
Divided on Inquiry
Likud and Labor are divided over whether to name a commission of inquiry into the 1984 incident, in which two Palestinian terrorists, captured alive when security forces stormed a bus that the two had helped to hijack, were later beaten to death by their Israeli interrogators.
Avraham Shalom, head of Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, resigned last week in the wake of allegations that he had ordered the killings and then covered up his agency’s role in them. In return for the resignation, Israeli President Chaim Herzog gave Shalom and three other Shin Bet officials immunity from prosecution in the case.
Herzog said he acted to “avert additional serious harm” to the Shin Bet, the Israeli equivalent of the FBI. But critics condemned the deal for having sidestepped the issue of political responsibility for the cover-up. Shamir was prime minister at the time of the 1984 incident, and at least two ministers have publicly accused him of abetting a whitewash of the affair.
Won’t Describe Role
Shamir denied any wrongdoing, but he has refused to describe his role, if any, in the affair and has strongly opposed an investigation of the matter by a commission of inquiry. He apparently has solid backing for his stance, not only from his own party but also from the minority religious parties.
“Those who call for the commission of inquiry right now do so for political motivations,” Ehud Olmert, a leading Likud member of Parliament, charged. “Let’s face it. They want to upset the government. They want to overthrow Shamir. They want to stop the rotation from taking place. That’s what they are after--not justice and not the real security interests of the state of Israel.”
Speaking in an interview with Israel radio Sunday, Health Minister Mordechai Gur, of Labor, said: “Shamir must resign and take responsibility for the harm done to the Israel Defense Forces, to the Shin Bet and the court system. There need be no commission of inquiry if Shamir accepts ministerial responsibility and says he will not become prime minister.”
Separately, leaders of the Labor-allied Shinui (Change) Party decided to pull out of the government unless a commission of inquiry is named to look into the Shin Bet affair. The decision must still be confirmed by the full party membership. Communications Minister Amnon Rubenstein, of Shinui, was one of the sponsors of a motion calling for an inquiry commission now before the Cabinet.
In addition to Gur and Rubenstein, three other Labor or Labor-allied ministers have said they will reconsider serving in the government if Shamir returns to the prime minister’s post in October. They are Education Minister Yitzhak Navon, Energy Minister Moshe Shahal and Ezer Weizman, the minister without portfolio.
The motion to name a commission of inquiry was introduced at the regular Cabinet meeting Sunday. Cabinet Secretary Yossi Beilin told reporters afterward that the motion was discussed under rules requiring the strictest secrecy but that no vote was taken. Debate is to resume at the next Cabinet meeting, possibly a special session later this week.
“This is a critical week for the future of the government,” Yaacov Tsur, the minister of immigration and absorption, commented. Tsur is a member of Peres’ Labor Alignment.
Israel television reported Sunday night that Peres told Shamir at a private meeting before the Cabinet session that some way must be found to investigate the incident.
But Israel radio quoted Shamir as saying: “Let the journalists bark and shout for a few days. For the good of the country we must shun any commission of inquiry and pay no heed to the gangs that are demanding it.”
It appears that Peres lacks votes enough to force the inquiry motion through the Cabinet. Even if Peres could win a majority of the full Cabinet, Shamir has the right under coalition guidelines to move the question to a 10-man “inner Cabinet” (five from Labor, five from Likud) where he appears assured of no worse than a deadlock.
Moreover, a key Labor holdout is reported to be Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who opposes setting up a commission of inquiry as something potentially damaging to the country’s vital secret services.
Nevertheless, a large majority inside Labor clearly favors an investigation, and it is conceivable that Peres’ own party allies could bring enough pressure on him to abandon the coalition and force new elections.
Today, the government faces four motions of no confidence in Parliament over the Shin Bet affair.
More important, the country’s High Court of Justice is to take up four petitions challenging the legality of the pardon-for-resignation deal involving the head of Shin Bet. If the high court rules in favor of the petitioners, the whole arrangement could come unraveled, adding more pressure for an inquiry.
“The resignation of ministers from the Labor camp, mass demonstrations and the continued pressure of the media and the court system--especially the High Court of Justice--might force the Peres-Shamir government into submission,” Hannan Krystal, a Hebrew University political analyst, said in an interview published Sunday by the independent newspaper Hadashot.
Yossi Sarid, a member of Parliament who submitted one of the four high court appeals, said in an interview: “I’m not very optimistic, taking into consideration the very short term. But in the longer term, I believe there is no option (other) than official investigation.”
Sarid compared the situation to America’s Watergate scandal.
Likud strategists believe that when they take stock of the public mood, Labor leaders will back down from their demands.
“If the Labor party wants to call for elections now, we are ready,” commented Likud’s Olmert. “Every person is sick and tired of what they call this ‘politicking’ at the expense of our most sacred interests. And I think if the Labor party is playing with this idea, they’d better watch it, because they might get elections and they might regret it.”