JERUSALEM — Foreign Minister Shimon Peres today demanded that Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir resign after the coalition government reached a deadlock on a proposed Middle East peace conference.
Peres, the chief proponent of the U.S.-backed plan, also called for new elections. But Shamir turned him down, saying, "The national unity government can and must continue to govern."
It was not clear which leader would prevail. Without the backing of Shamir's right-wing Likud Bloc, Labor Party leader Peres does not have the parliamentary support to initiate new elections.
But the 31-month-old Likud-Labor partnership was in its most severe crisis, with the two sides bitterly divided over a peace plan calling for an international conference to precede direct talks between Israel and its Arab enemies.
After the 3 1/2-hour inner Cabinet meeting, Peres indefinitely postponed his trip to Washington, which had been scheduled for later today.
He decided instead to fly to New York late Thursday or early Friday for three days to talk with Jewish leaders. Foreign Ministry officials said Peres was also scheduled to meet with U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz.
In a statement, Peres' Labor Party called on Shamir to "resign immediately. Yitzhak Shamir is not suitable to serve as prime minister of Israel."
Labor and Likud leaders summoned their party colleagues to emergency meetings.
Peres said he had not asked the 10-member inner Cabinet for a vote on the Mideast peace conference because "the result was known in advance." The forum is evenly split along party lines.
'The Correct Way Out'
Peres accused Shamir of trying to torpedo the peace process and added: "The correct way out is to appeal to the nation. The people will decide. There is nothing more honest."
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a Peres ally, concurred, saying: "We have reached a point where we are basically and thoroughly divided on the most crucial issues. Let's go to the people and bring about elections."
But Peres acknowledged that he does not yet have the majority necessary to dissolve the 120-member Parliament, the first step toward elections, and indicated that he will seek support from smaller parties.
Peres said that, in the meantime, Labor will maintain the partnership so power would not be left solely in the hands of Likud.
He said that despite the Cabinet's indecision, he feels that he still has a free hand to pursue peace efforts.
But Deputy Prime Minister David Levy of the Likud Bloc disagreed. He said, "No minister has the authority to operate in the name of the government of Israel" on the issue of an international conference.
Shamir said that the Peres plan was not approved by the Cabinet and that "therefore the foreign minister does not have a mandate to act in the international arena on the subject of an international conference."
The proposed conference would include the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council--the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, China and France--along with Israel and Jordan, Egypt and possibly other Arab nations, as well as a Palestinian delegation.
Shamir fears that such a forum would be heavily weighted against Israel and could force it to concede territories captured during the 1967 Six-Day War.
But Peres claims that Israel has a historic opportunity to negotiate peace with Jordan that must not be missed.