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

January 24, 1988|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — 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

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