Israel's coalition government, unable to take the fateful step toward the country's first peace talks with Palestinians, edged toward collapse Sunday.
Top Cabinet ministers from the Likud and Labor parties, the coalition partners, met for three hours but adjourned without a vote on a U.S. proposal to get the peace process under way.
"This is the end of the agreement," fumed Labor leader Shimon Peres, who has summoned his 1,300-member Central Committee to discuss today the party's possible withdrawal from the 15-month-old national unity government.
According to participants, Peres demanded that his Likud counterpart, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, put a positive response to the American proposal to a vote of the 12 assembled ministers. Shamir refused, prompting Peres to lead his Labor followers out of the conference room in ministerial offices in West Jerusalem.
"We served notice that a lack of a vote would be seen as a decision, and I see this as a negative decision," Peres told reporters.
Declared Communications Minister Gad Yaacobi, a Peres supporter: "The reason for this government to exist has ended. The present peace process was ended by Likud. There is no chance to continue."
However, brinkmanship is an art in Israeli politics, and despite Peres' insistence that the coalition no longer serves a purpose, other politicians pushed for more time on the decision.
"We must make an effort--another day or two, another week or two--to find a formula that will enable the two parties to act together," urged Transport Minister Moshe Katsav, a member of Likud.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, more flexible than Peres on deadlines, reportedly put forward a compromise Sunday to bridge the gap between Peres and Shamir.
Rabin called for immediate acceptance of the American formula--which would jar loose the stalemated peace process--and subsequent parliamentary decisions on the issues of negotiating strategy dividing the two parties.
But Rabin's proposal never came to a vote. "The prime minister said there was still a need for more discussion," Katsav told reporters.
Shamir and Rabin, who have demonstrated the ability to work the middle ground between Labor's doves and Likud's hawks, both left the Cabinet meeting without talking to reporters. Before the meeting, however, Rabin told Israel Radio, "A government that blocks the chance for peace will be sorry, and there is no place for its continued existence."
Army Radio said legislators of both parties traveling abroad were summoned home as the political leaders girded for the fallout from Sunday's Cabinet meeting.
Political analysts expect the governmental crisis to follow this pattern:
Today, the Labor Party Central Committee will make a decision on whether to remain in the coalition or toss the responsibility to Labor members of Parliament for more flexibility. Perhaps Thursday, a vote of no-confidence in the coalition could be raised in Parliament, and Labor members might then join in bringing down the government. Attempts would be made by both Labor and Likud to form a thin majority with minor parties. In fact, discussions among Labor officials and some religious parties have been reported in the last three days. If the coalition crumbles and neither big party can salvage a majority with the support of small parties, a general election would be held.
Israel's recent political history is etched with excruciatingly involved governmental crises, and voters are inured to the process. However, the questions of peace and negotiations strike emotional chords that have made this more than just another crisis.
Radio reports said Likud ministers at Sunday's meeting complained loudly against what they perceived to be American pressure to open political talks with Palestinians. They raised unconfirmed reports that Secretary of State James A. Baker III plans to go to Cairo for the initial talks, condemning what they consider a high-profile approach to negotiations that they want to keep at the technical level.
This effort to establish peace talks, one of many over past decades, had several foundations. The Palestinian intifada --the uprising in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip--began in December, 1987, bringing daily violence to the Israeli doorstep. Nearly a year later, Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for the first time recognized the existence of the state of Israel. He said Israelis have the right to live within secure borders and repeated his longstanding demand for a Palestinian state. Then, in May, 1989, Shamir put forward the elements of the peace plan now being debated.
The Shamir plan would eventually lead to the election of Palestinian representatives to negotiate with Israelis on the future status of the occupied territories. The first step is the selection of a panel of Palestinians to meet in Cairo and discuss arrangements for the elections. The Baker compromise is designed to bridge differences between Palestinians and Israelis on who may be delegates to those Cairo talks.
Shamir is opposed to any attempt by the PLO to control the Cairo delegation.