Leaders at Odds as Election Nears : Israel Facing Agonizing Options as Unrest Persists

Times Staff Writer

Mayor Shlomo Lahat of Tel Aviv, a member of the rightist Likud Bloc, came out publicly the other day in favor of giving the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to Jordan's King Hussein, a position shared by the most dovish wing of the rival Labor Alignment.

Labor's Gad Yaacobi, the minister of economy and planning, and Likud's Ehud Olmert, a member of the Knesset (Parliament), have both urged that if all else fails, Israel should unilaterally pull most of its forces out of the occupied areas and turn day-to-day management of their affairs over to the Palestinian residents.

And Likud's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, considered the nation's principal defender of the status quo, and Labor's Ezer Weizman, minister without portfolio in the Cabinet and perhaps Shamir's most outspoken critic, both are endorsing an approach through Egypt to resurrect the stalled Camp David peace process.

As such examples suggest, six weeks of violent unrest in the territories have not only breathed new life into what had become an almost mechanical political debate within Israel on the issue of Middle East peace but have also subtly reshaped it.

So many small cracks have appeared in carefully nurtured, united political fronts that Israel's ambassador to London complained in an interview with the Jerusalem Post last week that dissonance in the leadership is further complicating an already difficult job of protecting the country's media image.

Instead of arguing almost exclusively about the format for any negotiations, there is renewed high-level debate here over who ought to be the primary partner in peace talks and what ought to be the goals of such discussions.

The changes do not seem to have generated any new ideas for a solution yet. Critics charge that some of the talk about peace is only a ruse by politicians anxious not to appear rejectionist before an aroused outside world. And there is concern among others here that as calm returns to the territories, the issue could quickly slip from the top of the national agenda.

But with national elections scheduled in just over nine months, the renewed debate takes on added significance.

In the last parliamentary elections, in 1984, neither Shamir's Likud Bloc nor the centrist Labor Alignment of Shimon Peres, who is vice prime minister and foreign minister, could win a big enough plurality to form a ruling coalition without the other. As a result, they teamed up in a "national unity" government that has been virtually paralyzed on the issue of the territories because of ideological differences.

Election Timetable

If there is a different election result in 1988, it could have a profound impact on Israel's posture on the peace process.

Peres has suggested moving the election timetable forward, but Shamir is flatly opposed to doing so.

"At this time when we are under attack, it would not be good for the people of Israel to enter into an elections war," Shamir said. "It will weaken our position in the eyes of the Arabs."

It might also cost him his job.

Peres, meanwhile, does not appear to have the political strength to force early elections. "A Knesset majority in favor of an early election has never been in the cards during the lifetime of the present government," the Jerusalem Post said in an editorial last week. "It certainly cannot be put together at this time.

"The only alternative, then, is for the (Labor) Alignment to leave the government," the generally pro-Labor newspaper added. "But the havoc that the Likud, governing at will, could wreak on the country during the intervening nine months could be horrendous."

Order Is First Priority

Both Shamir and Labor's defense minister, Yitzhak Rabin, have also said repeatedly that Israel's first priority, before talking about a political solution to the problem, is to restore law and order in the territories. It must be made clear to the Palestinians, they argue, that nothing will be gained by violence.

Peres has taken a different line, however, arguing that "the worst thing is unrest without negotiations."

He reportedly urged during a regular meeting of the coalition Cabinet last Sunday that a government statement include an expression of the need to pursue political solutions simultaneously with restoring law and order. Both Rabin and Shamir objected, however, and the official summation called for restoration of order "notwithstanding internal disputes on topics related to the peace process."

The political right also has a small but vocal group of dissidents. Mayor Lahat's call to give up the territories in defiance of Likud's line against territorial compromise brought immediate demands that he be dropped from the party ticket. Given the Tel Aviv mayor's popularity, however, and the possibility that he could switch parties and win the city race as a Labor candidate, Likud is expected to try to just ignore his comments.

Call for Flexibility

A few members of the ruling Central Committee of Likud's mainstream Herut faction have also called on party leader Shamir to show more flexibility on the Palestinian problem. In turn, they have been subjected to "a terror campaign" by their political opponents, as dissident leader Moshe Amirav, a Jerusalem businessman facing expulsion from the party, complained.

"The longer the disquiet in the territories continues, the more these inner cracks in the two major parties will deepen," the Jerusalem Post asserted in another editorial last week.

A debate continues between Peres and Shamir over the appropriate format for any Middle East peace talks. Peres advocates an international conference under the auspices of the U.N. Security Council, while Shamir calls for a renewal of talks on Palestinian "autonomy" under the framework of 1978 agreements negotiated with Egypt at Camp David, Md.

But increasingly, the debate in the wake of the unrest has turned to a different question: With whom should Israel be negotiating?

Palestinians Outflanked

"Israel has been overlooking and outflanking the Palestinians for ages now by going to Jordan, by going to Egypt," said Moshe Maoz, a Hebrew University Arabist and sometime adviser to Peres and other leaders.

"This is fine. I mean, Egypt is very important for the peace process, Jordan is very important," Maoz added. "But we have business with the Palestinians--1.5 million Palestinians," the number who live in the occupied territories. "And we have had business with them for a century now. We have to talk with them. We have to live with them. We have to coexist with them. We have to suggest to them some ideas--also in conjunction with Jordan, yes--but first to them."

Peres, Shamir, and Rabin all say they are willing to talk to local West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestinian leaders. But those leaders refuse, arguing that they lack a mandate from their own neighbors, much less from the 3 million Palestinians who live outside of the territories.

While Israel permitted municipal elections in the territories in 1976, it subsequently outlawed the so-called "National Guidance Committee" of elected leaders because it backed the Palestine Liberation Organization in its claim to be the true representative of Palestinian aspirations.

View of PLO Unchanged

An apparent majority of Israelis oppose the PLO as nothing but a terrorist organization, and one plank in the platform of the national unity coalition specifically rules out negotiations with Yasser Arafat's group.

While the Israeli leadership still clearly prefers to deal with the issue as part of broader negotiations with a sovereign Arab government, however, it seems to be showing unaccustomed deference to the Palestinians as a people in the wake of the unrest.

Rabin said that the demonstrations marked the first time that the residents of the territories were taking their fate into their own hands. And Peres earlier last week expressed support for "the eventual establishment of an elected local Arab leadership in the territories."

A number of influential Israelis have told friends privately that they are even ready to deal with the PLO if that will bring real peace. And some--including Maoz, Reserve Gen. Shlomo Gazit, former head of military intelligence, and even Cabinet minister Weizman--have said so publicly.

Rather Talk Than Shoot

Commenting on reports that Arafat had signaled to Peres his readiness for negotiations with Israel, Weizman commented in a telephone interview: "I have said before and I say again, when and if the PLO accepts whatever we said--cease-fire and recognition of Israel and (U.N. resolutions) 242, 338, and is willing to cooperate with Egypt (and) Jordan on a delegation to discuss things--I will not check who's who and what's what. Anyone who shoots at me now and wants to talk to me later, I'd rather talk to him than shoot at each other."

The U.N. resolutions, adopted in 1967 and 1973, call for withdrawal of Israeli forces from "territories occupied" in the 1967 Six-Day War and asserts the right of all nations in the area to "live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries."

There remains a possibly unbridgeable chasm between the maximum that the most dovish Israeli is willing to offer for peace and the minimum that the least demanding Palestinian would accept. Even Peres, the leading spokesman for the so-called "Jordanian option," concedes that given a choice, the Palestinians would vastly prefer to have their own state under Yasser Arafat than to be ruled by Jordan's King Hussein.

Peres' hope, as he put it last week, is that "if he has to choose between a PLO that does not lead to a solution, and a Jordan that is likely to lead to a solution, it is quite conceivable that (the Palestinian's) preference for a solution will bring him to the Jordanian side."

Peres' Position

While it is much less clear what Peres would be willing to offer Hussein, his party is ostensibly committed to trading sovereignty over at least some West Bank and Gaza Strip land for a peace treaty.

At the other end of the Israeli spectrum is Shamir, whose Likud Bloc insists on retaining control over all of "the land of Israel," including the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The best he offers is personal, not territorial, autonomy for the Palestinians, the terms of which, he adds, should be worked out by a renewal of the ill-fated autonomy talks begun under the Camp David agreements.

Some Palestinians might accept autonomy as an interim step toward self-determination. But that is clearly not what Shamir has in mind.

In between Shamir's autonomy and Peres' Jordanian option are an almost infinite number of confederation and other schemes that would offer the Palestinians some degree of self-determination but not a full-fledged state of their own. Few, if any, Israelis would be willing to see an independent Palestinian entity with its own army on Israel's borders.

Palestinian Proposals

The various confederation schemes include two-way partnerships between Israel and the Palestinians or between Jordan and the Palestinians, or a three-way confederation. Some allow for the Palestinians to have their own currency, stamps, flag, diplomatic service, and even some junior standing in Jerusalem.

One proposal is to turn the squalid and overcrowded Gaza Strip into a sort of Palestinian Hong Kong, a glittering financial center.

There is clearly no shortage of ideas for compromise, but whether the latest unrest has shuffled the pieces of the Middle East puzzle enough to generate the political will to settle on one idea remains to be seen.

Ironically, some analysts here believe that the same Israeli soldiers who have been criticized for using excessive force in putting down the demonstrations may be the key to breaking the deadlock.

Resentment in the Army

The Hebrew language newspaper, Maariv, reported last week that there is growing resentment in the army over having to shoulder the burden of what they see as the failure of the political leadership to resolve the Palestinian problem.

"The positive thing about the events in the territories is that they forced many Israelis, especially the soldiers, to understand that we don't have them for free, that we pay a very heavy price," Nahum Barnea, editor of the political weekly, Koteret Rashit, commented in an interview. "And I believe that this has an effect on all parties."

Referring to Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the pullout three years later of most of its troops, Barnea added: "Let me remind you that Israel withdrew from Lebanon not because of international pressure; not because the army couldn't hold Lebanon; but because the army pressured the government to get out. I see indications that the uneasiness in the army has an impact on the government, on the political system."

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