JERUSALEM — Justice Minister Yitzhak Modai resigned from Israel's national unity government Monday under pressure from Prime Minister Shimon Peres, averting a crisis that could have toppled the coalition.
Peres had planned to fire Modai for criticizing his handling of the so-called Shin Bet affair, involving the 1984 beating deaths of two Palestinians captured during a bus hijacking incident and subsequent attempts to cover up the involvement of the Shin Bet internal security police.
Peres had called an extraordinary Cabinet meeting for Monday afternoon to officially inform the ministers of his decision and to hand Modai his walking papers. But Modai preempted the move, announcing his intention to resign at a hastily called press conference less than two hours before the Cabinet session.
Fellow ministers from Modai's Likud Bloc, who had earlier warned that they would walk out of their fragile coalition with Peres' Labor Alignment if the prime minister went through with his threat, accepted Modai's decision.
"We wouldn't want to give Labor a prize for its behavior," said Social Affairs Minister Moshe Katzav, a member of Likud, as he emerged from the half-hour Cabinet meeting, by then a pure formality. But, he said, "we wanted to continue in the national unity government with the Labor Party."
Likud officials charge that Peres and his Labor party colleagues have been doing their best to precipitate a government crisis in order to subvert a rotation agreement that calls for Peres to change jobs in October with Yitzhak Shamir, the foreign minister and deputy premier.
Major Test of Peres
The conflict with Modai had been seen here as a major test of leadership for Peres, whose image has suffered as the rotation draws nearer. A week ago, he lost a key Cabinet test when opponents voted down a Labor-supported motion to establish a full-scale state inquiry into the Shin Bet affair.
If Peres were to back down in the face of the latest Modai criticism, it was felt, he would be a doormat for Likud for the remainder of his term.
While Likud is generally seen here as having gained popularity with its stand against an investigation of the Shin Bet affair, its decision to accept the forced resignation of one of its own ministers indicates that it is still wary of new elections.
According to the latest polls, Labor would gain 51 seats in the 120-seat Parliament and Likud only 32 if elections were held. Neither would have enough for a majority, and the Cabinet vote on the Shin Bet affair showed that Likud still enjoys the support of Israel's potentially pivotal religious parties.
The latest incident was the second in just over three months in which the outspoken Modai has precipitated a showdown over his criticism of Peres.
Last April, Modai, who was then finance minister, called the much-traveled Peres a "flying prime minister" with little knowledge of economics who squandered government funds to save institutions affiliated with the Labor Alignment.
Peres demanded Modai's resignation then, too, but the crisis was ended when Labor and Likud agreed on a Cabinet shuffle that sent Modai to the Justice Ministry.
As justice minister, Modai was criticized over the removal of Atty. Gen. Yitzhak Zamir, who had forced a police inquiry into the killing of the two captured Palestinians. Modai then appointed a virtually unknown district judge, Yosef Harish, to the post without prior discussion with Peres.
'Score to Settle'
His offending remarks on Saturday referred to this move. Asked why he did not consult the prime minister before appointing the attorney general, Modai said the prime minister "knows as much about law as he knows about economics" and added that he had "a score to settle" with Peres.
At his press conference Monday, Modai complained that several Labor ministers have been guilty of much more insulting remarks about both him and Shamir.
"The Israeli public is a bit tired of the loud rivalry between the members of the Israeli government," he added.
Nevertheless, he said, he was resigning for the good of the country. "I'll go back to the Knesset (Parliament) to gain energy for the coming political events," he said.
It was not immediately clear whether Modai could be reappointed to a Cabinet post if Shamir takes over as prime minister in October, as scheduled.
A spokesman in Peres' office said, "I don't think it was discussed." However, he noted that after the April crisis, Peres sent a letter to Shamir stating flatly that it was a condition of their settlement that Modai could not return to the Finance Ministry after rotation.
For the moment, Modai's resignation leaves Labor with a 5-4 advantage in the so-called "inner Cabinet" of senior ministers--a body established in the coalition agreement to ensure that on the most critical issues, neither major party could force through a decision opposed by the other.
However, government sources said Likud is expected to name a replacement to the inner Cabinet, as well as a new justice minister. In the meantime, according to Cabinet Secretary Yossi Beilin, Peres will retain the Justice Ministry portfolio.