JERUSALEM — Israel's broad-based coalition was shattered Tuesday over burning differences on peace talks with the Palestinians.
The end came dramatically at a morning Cabinet meeting when Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, rebuffed in a last-minute attempt to continue consultations, fired Shimon Peres, his finance minister and deputy prime minister who is also head of the Labor Party.
The other 10 Labor ministers of the Cabinet promptly resigned and walked out of the meeting.
Peres told a press conference, convened within an hour in his Finance Ministry offices, that Labor has introduced a motion of no-confidence in the Shamir-led government and will vote Thursday in the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, to try to bring the regime down.
"We think there is a chance . . . to form a (Labor-led) coalition" if Shamir's Likud Party is defeated in the vote, Peres told reporters. ". . . If we do, then, as in the past, the guideline will be the peace process."
Peres said the prime minister had handed him a request for his resignation just five minutes into the Cabinet meeting.
"We didn't exchange a word," he noted.
While a door is still slightly ajar to salvage the coalition before Thursday, bitter comments from both sides suggested that--if the no-confidence resolution passes--Israel faces instead drawn-out attempts by both Likud and Labor to form a government with a slim majority made up with the support from small religious parties. Failing that, new general elections would be called. The last were held in November, 1988.
If Shamir's forces withstand the no-confidence vote, he will continue as prime minister and try to form a coalition of the right. Neither side suggested that the broad coalition of the two big parties could be put back together should the government fall.
National Religious Party leader Zevulun Hammer said he will continue to seek a formula to bridge the differences between Likud and Labor, and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin himself appeared prepared to listen. But Peres told reporters: "The compromises are behind us, not before us."
The coalition collapse threatens to derail efforts to start a peace process. Israel's first direct talks with Palestinians over the future of the occupied West Bank and Gaza, proposed by Shamir last May, have been stymied by fundamental divisions between the two big parties. Shamir's break with Peres came over the Labor leader's demand for an immediate answer to an American formula for forming a preliminary Palestinian delegation for talks in Cairo.
"I believe the responsibility for breaking up the national unity government will be put on minister Shamir," said Rabin, who sat somberly with Peres, his party leader, at the press conference.
Rabin told reporters that Shamir had summoned him before the morning Cabinet meeting to make a final appeal to avoid the split with Labor. According to Rabin, Shamir asked that the issue of the American formula be taken up today by the Cabinet, and that if Labor lifts its threat to support the no-confidence vote, agreement could be reached "in two days or a week."
Rabin said he had no authority to make a commitment, and both he and Peres said the decision had been dragged on too long.
Blame for the collapse of the 15-month-old coalition was assessed from both sides.
Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud accused Peres of ultimatum politics, saying: "It is impossible to have a government that someone is always trying to topple." Added Shamir spokesman Yossi Achimeir: "The Labor Party plays a double game. They were members of the government playing games outside the government."
Labor's Gad Yaacobi, the now-resigned communications minister, accused Shamir of stalling on the peace talks beyond reason.
"Shamir did not say yes to the peace process," he said. "History will judge him."
From the Palestinian side, Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij observed: "I believe Israel has killed its own peace plan. . . . and this will have very dangerous repercussions through the Middle East."
Technically, political analysts said, Shamir moved Tuesday against the Labor ministers in his Cabinet to prevent them from staying on in a transitional government he would head should the no-confidence vote succeed. The Labor resignations, under law, are not effective until 48 hours after submission, and by forcing the collapse on Tuesday, the prime minister made sure that they will be final by the time of the parliamentary vote.
On Tuesday evening, a Parliament member of the socialist Mapam Party, which supports Labor, used an obscure house rule to try to force the no-confidence vote today. The final decision on his motion was uncertain, but if it is approved, the Labor ministers presumably could remain in a transitional government should Wednesday's vote go against Shamir.
Israeli Army Radio also said that Labor supporters were attempting to petition the Supreme Court to advance the no-confidence vote by a day.