JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has linked the arrival of thousands of Soviet Jews to Israel's claim to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and in doing so, has linked the very foundation of Zionism--the return of Jews to their homeland--to the most disputed question in Israel, the future of the occupied territories and their Arab inhabitants.
This linkage, formulated in a speech by Shamir this week, appears to preclude territorial compromise as a basis for peace with Palestinians, at least in the short run. The land-for-peace formula is viewed by Israeli doves and by U.S. officials in Washington as the keystone of a settlement.
Shamir's words may have undermined Israel's request for U.S. aid to provide housing for the Soviet newcomers. The Bush Administration opposes Jewish settlement in the disputed territories, and the State Department criticized Shamir's statement as "not helpful" to the cause of peace.
But Shamir was opening a window on even larger issues, Israeli observers say, and setting the stage for an open battle over the ideological basis for the Jewish state.
In Shamir's view, the aliyah , or "coming up" to Israel, by Soviet Jews and their being settled in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip is no different than the arrival of Jews over the last 100 years and their settlement in parts of what is now Israel proper.
"What is clear," Shamir told members of his Likud Party on Sunday, "is that for the big aliyah we need the Land of Israel, a big and powerful state."
"Land of Israel" is the Israeli political term for a greater Israel that includes the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Shamir's comments forced rivals in the more dovish Labor Party, which is locked into the ruling coalition with Likud, to define more clearly their view of the future shape of Israel.
Labor's version is less reliant on nationalism than Shamir's. Finance Minister Shimon Peres, the Labor Party leader, said that what is needed is not only aliyah but also a way of making Israel more appealing to all comers. Constant conflict over land, he said, subverts this need.
So the battle lines are drawn. For Shamir, aliyah plus the Land of Israel equals a strong Israel. For Peres, aliyah, yes, but with technology, growth--all the presumed benefits of settlement.
Both sides have been avoiding open warfare on the land question in 13 months of tenuous partnership in the so-called national unity government. But because both parties are planning meetings soon to spell out their stands on the question of peace talks, it appears that the battle cannot be put off for long.
Will Labor pull out of government, or stay and risk seeing its principles submerged? Will Likud, suspecting that peace talks will erode the land imperative, put a halt to the move toward negotiations?
"The parties are separated by modes of thinking," said political analyst Arye Naor, a former official in the Likud government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin. "Likud is mistrustful of the outside. If we give up the land, then who knows what the Arabs will do? Labor's approach is different. Labor thinks if the status quo goes on, the state of Israel will decline."
Yaron Ezrahi, a political theorist at Hebrew University, likened Shamir's vision to the 19th-Century concept of empire building, which viewed the acquisition of land and population as marks of a great nation.
"These values were discredited, especially after World War II," Ezrahi argued. "Even the Soviet Union is giving them up. But not Shamir."