JERUSALEM — Senior Israeli Cabinet ministers split along party lines during a nearly 4 1/2-hour debate here Monday on whether to endorse an American-brokered framework for Middle East peace talks. But they adjourned, as anticipated, without voting on the controversial plan and are expected to resume their deliberations Wednesday.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who formally presented the proposal to the so-called "inner Cabinet" for the first time Monday, has threatened to pull his centrist Labor Alignment out of the fragile coalition government and work for new elections if the ministers reject what he has called a historic opportunity for peace.
But Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his rightist Likud Bloc colleagues opposed the conference idea as a trap in which Israel would be pressured to make territorial concessions that could compromise its national security.
Nine of the 10 senior ministers who are members of the powerful inner Cabinet spoke during Monday's session, which government sources described as generally "quiet." The only official who did not speak was Finance Minister Moshe Nissim, a Shamir ally.
Cabinet sources said the most tense moment came when hawkish Industry Minister Ariel Sharon charged that the Peres plan would mean the return of Israel to its pre-1967 borders and a revival of the "atmosphere of terrorism" that existed in the first years of the state. "They have not narrowed the gap," Shamir spokesman Avi Pazner said after Monday's session. "They are as far apart now as they were before the debate."
Body Evenly Divided
All the ministers are expected to have more to say when the debate continues at a regularly scheduled Cabinet session Wednesday, and government sources said the deliberations are likely to require a third and possibly additional meetings before the crucial vote.
The inner Cabinet is evenly split between Labor and Likud. A 5-5 vote would effectively mean defeat for Peres' proposal, in which case he has said it will be necessary to take the issue "to the people."
Shamir has said he is not afraid of new elections. But it is in his interests to at least delay them because--under the agreement that established the coalition government--he is due to serve as prime minister until November, 1988. He took over the job from Peres last October, halfway through the government's scheduled 50-month life.
Government sources said Peres presented his case for the international conference backed up by two key documents. One was a so-called "document of understanding" that is believed to outline key ground rules for the conference already agreed to by Jordan, Egypt and the United States. The other included a series of American "clarifications" pertaining to criticisms raised by Shamir during earlier consultations.
Shultz Letter 'Very Supportive'
The sources said Peres also read to the Cabinet ministers a "very supportive" letter he received Sunday from U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz. The letter reportedly urged that recent progress in the peace process "should be exploited," even if that means setting up an international conference once opposed by the Reagan Administration.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a Peres ally, proposed Sunday night that the government invite Shultz to undertake a shuttle mission to promote regional peace talks, with stops in Jerusalem, Amman, Cairo and possibly Damascus.
Shamir reiterated his objections to an international conference at Monday's meeting without presenting an alternative proposal, which he had said he would offer during the Cabinet debate. No details of the Shamir plan are available, although he has made it clear that he sees direct Israeli-Jordanian negotiations as the only road to peace and that he is unwilling to make any territorial concessions on the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Peres says his goal is also direct negotiations but that Jordan needs an international "umbrella" for such talks in order to lend them legitimacy and to counter criticism that Jordan's King Hussein is abandoning the wider Arab cause in a selfish search for a settlement with Israel.
Officials in Shamir's office described Likud ministers as "disappointed" by what they saw as Peres' inflexibility during Monday's debate.
Foreign Ministry sources said late Monday that Peres is still expected to travel to the United States on Wednesday night on a previously scheduled, weeklong visit. They suggested that the crucial inner Cabinet vote on his proposal is not likely until after his return.
There has been speculation here that the two sides might yet find a compromise solution allowing Peres to pursue the possibility of peace talks without committing the government to steps that the Likud ministers find unacceptable. However, aides to the foreign minister were still predicting Monday that the government will fall and that there will be new elections by the end of the summer.