Peres moves cautiously on peace strategy, despite electoral boost

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

``Wait and see.'' This seems to be the current Mideast negotiating strategy of Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, despite an electoral boost over his more conservative coalition government partners.

Election results released Tuesday showed gains for Mr. Peres's Labor Party over the rightist Likud in voting for the leadership of Israel's huge national trade union organization, the Histadrut. With his rating in opinion polls steadily rising, Peres has been under pressure from some aides to scrap his eight-month-old coalition accord with the Likud and force early elections for Israel's parliament, the Knesset.

The Peres entourage would like a popular mandate for Labor to govern alone -- freeing the party from various Likud policy constraints, notably on issues of overall peace with the Arabs. Peres is portrayed by aides as keen to seize any realistic chance for direct talks with Jordan and the Palestinians, whatever the domestic political risks involved.

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However, for the moment, he seems more likely to wait and see.

Among issues he'll be watching are prospects for thawing the ``cold peace'' with Egypt. An Israeli delegation was to head for Cairo late Tuesday to explore chances for progress on issues that have strained ties between Israel and Egypt, including Israeli involvement in Lebanon, a dispute over a patch of land on the countries' Sinai border, and the future of Palestinians on the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

On the issue of the Palestinians there are especially sharp differences between Labor and Likud, which considers the formerly Jordanian-ruled West Bank a nonnegotiable part of Israel.

But there are two reasons Peres is seen as leery of immediately breaking up his coalition with the Likud.

One is United States Secretary of State George Shultz's recent Mideast visit which, in Israel's view, stopped short of clearing obstacles to widening the Israeli-Egyptian peace to include Jordan and the Palestinians.

Mr. Shultz said Monday that he made ``headway'' on the question of how to assemble a joint ``Palestinian-Jordanian'' delegation to negotiate peace. But so far, Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat seems to have failed to agree with Jordan's King Hussein on the Palestinian members for such a team.

Disagreements are expected in Israel, too, on that issue. All government ministers opppose the inclusion of ``PLO members'' in a joint delegation. But Labor and Likud differ over what constitutes PLO membership -- for instance whether the label applies to ``independent'' members of the Palestine National Council, the PLO's nominal ``parliament.''

A pro-Peres newspaper said after Shultz's visit that ``Peres is anxious to avoid exacerbating possible differences with the Likud which, until a list of Palestininans emerges, remain in the realm of the hypothetical.''

Labor's ``victory'' in the Histadrut elections was meanwhile seen by local political pundits as less resoundingly significant than some Peres aides had clearly hoped.

The results showed a gain of nearly 5 percent for Labor and a similar drop in the Likud's national vote. More startlingly, in parallel voting for local Histadrut councils, the Likud lost control of the home town of the party's popular Deputy Prime Minister David Levy.

But Israeli political analysts were quick to suggest various reasons for the results. These included the charisma of the Labor Party's Histadrut leader, Yisrael Kessar; the fact this year's Likud slate was headed by a relative unknown; Labor's historic dominance of the Histadrut; and the fact both Labor and Likud, in deference to the ``national unity'' government, had combined to make the election campaign the least contentious in recent memory.

``Both major parties,'' said Israel's politically independent Maariv newspaper Tuesday, ``will act wisely if they don't rush to conclusions [from the Histadrut voting] with respect to Knesset elections.''

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