Tel Aviv — AT first the incident seemed little more than a political brush-back pitch, one man's way of letting a protagonist know he was crowding the plate. Prime Minister Shimon Peres's office announced that Israel's dashing minister without portfolio, Ezer Weizman, had accepted an invitation for a ``private'' visit to Cairo to confer with Egypt's leaders, the trip having been cleared with Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Surprisingly, at the Cabinet meeting held the day before Weizman was to go, Shamir moved to block the trip and, with several members absent, succeeded briefly.
Shamir's Likud supporters explained that Weizman had so hyped his mission -- suggesting it involved weighty issues and would lead promptly to a Peres summit with President Hosni Mubarak -- that the foreign minister felt he had to protect his turf.
Peres's people complained of a double-cross and, forced into the inelegant procedure of a full Cabinet telephone poll the following day, suggested a loss would mean the end of Israel's national unity government.
Peres prevailed, 13 to 12.
Significantly, however, upon Weizman's return, Israel's summit preparations were delegated to a senior-level three-man team at which the views of Shamir were more than adequately represented.
The incident provides a good window on the current workings of the Israeli government and the distance Peres must still travel if he is to enjoy the foreign policy prerogatives associated with all previous prime ministers, particularly as those prerogatives apply to future negotiations over the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It further suggests the heavy role the United States will have to play if those talks are ever to succeed.
Israel's national unity government, with its 25-month rotating prime ministership, has already vindicated itself by adopting a stopgap anti-inflation program and voting to end the country's disastrous Lebanon campaign.
Most probably, the government will hold together through the expected Peres/Mubarak summit, with Shamir ultimately yielding to Mubarak's demand for arbitration of existing territorial disputes in return for full normalization, including the return of Cairo's ambassador to Tel Aviv.
But beyond a very thin faade, national unity stops at the occupied territories. True enough, both Labor and the Likud seek negotiations with a Jordanian/Palestinian delegation and both rule out participation by declared members of the PLO.
But, as a matter of ideology, the Likud claims ``Judea,'' ``Samaria,'' and the Gaza district as part of historic ``Eretz Israel'' and is willing to negotiate only about the degree of autonomy appropriate for the area's 1.2 million Arab residents. Labor accepts the applicability of Security Council Resolution 242 to all fronts of the 1967 ``six-day war'' and is ready to talk about territorial compromise in exchange for peace.
Peres and his political lieutenants had long regarded this as the most promising anvil on which to hammer out a new coalition devoid of the Likud and the commitment to rotate prime ministerships.
For example, the 44-man Likud Knesset bloc includes 13 members of the Liberal Party, whose longstanding organic union with the Likud is like a marriage gone sour in the eyes of all save the principals themselves.
Also within the government are four smallish parties representing Orthodox Jewry, whose theological unity has never extended to such questions as to how to carve up the power in key government ministries or allocate scarce state funds among competing institutions devoted to religious education.
By wooing the Liberals and playing the Orthodox party legislators against one another, Peres had hoped to survive no-confidence votes through the early stages of peace negotiations. Then, with a deal ready for signature, the prime minister hoped to take his case to the Israeli electorate, boldly presenting Labor as the party of peace while Likud championed itself as the party of land.
But the Weizman vote showed Peres far from able to execute that sort of power play. To a man, Cabinet liberals stayed with the Likud. The national religious party's Dr. Joseph Burg, a Cabinet minister in every government since statehood, abstained on the first vote, casting the swing vote for Peres on the critical phone ballot only to prevent the government from falling.
Nor has Labor's standing in the polls risen to the point where Peres would want to risk early elections. While Peres's personal popularity is currently very high, most reliable surveys suggest Labor would win few more seats today than it did the last time around.
Peres, adjusting to political reality, insists that it is possible to find agreement with the Likud on the makeup of a Jordanian/Palestinian delegation and the opening Israeli negotiating position.
But even such a veneer of unity is difficult to maintain. This was demonstrated just days ago when a laborite deputy minister visiting Washington suggested that the Israeli government was prepared to return to Jordan West Bank territory embracing settlements -- most established during the seven years of Likud rule -- on which some 25,000 Jews currently live. Shamir promptly accused labor of ``grossly violating the coalition agreement,'' which pledges no territorial compromise without a fresh electoral mandate.
A number of senior Labor officials privately suggest that only an energetic American involvement in the peace process can untie the hands of the Peres government. Many see the current process similar to the long quest for peace with Egypt, a quest which had its grand gestures and spectacular breakthroughs but which nonetheless required steady, high-level American attention during a nine-year period beginning with the first meeting at kilometer 101 and ending with the final Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai.
If the United States is to help guide this process to a successful conclusion, it must be ready to reward flexibility, penalize hardheadedness, goad, encourage, chastise, mediate, reinforce, and even propose its own solutions as the situation warrants.
The sense here is that a majority within Israel is still willing to go very far to achieve real peace. True friendship requires a firm American hand to see the distance fully traversed.
C. Robert Zelnick is the ABC News chief correspondent in Tel Aviv.