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After Mideast Peace Talks, More Turf Wars at Home

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 13, 1991



JERUSALEM

BOTH Israeli and Palestinian leaders have returned home from Madrid to find that the peace process they helped launch there has unleashed political turf battles in their own backyards.Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who angered his foreign minister, David Levy, by choosing to lead the Israeli delegation to Madrid himself, now has to placate Mr. Levy in order to head off a challenge to Mr. Shamir's leadership of the ruling Likud party. Palestinian delegation leader Faisal al-Husseini, meanwhile, was clearly surprised and perturbed earlier this week when he arrived back in Jerusalem to discover that "political committees" had been set up around the occupied territories in his absence and without his knowledge. The latest round in Shamir's decade-long feud with Levy erupted late last month, when the prime minister named his own closest advisers to the Madrid delegation, effectively cutting the foreign ministry out of all the important posts. The dispute worsened and drew international attention when Levy recalled foreign ministry staff from Madrid in the middle of the conference to emphasize his resentment. Behind the move, few observers saw any argument over the way Shamir had handled the conference, or his negotiating position. "It was more a question of competition for leadership of the [Likud] party than of a real difference of opinion," says Shlomo Lakdimon, a political commentator for the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot. Anxious to avoid such open competition, Shamir has negotiated a new deal with Levy that gives the foreign ministry the No. 2 slots on the teams that will negotiate with the Syrians and with the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, the leadership of the team negotiating with the Lebanese, and overall responsibility for the planned multilateral negotiations. With Housing Minister Ariel Sharon in the ring as a challenger to Shamir to lead the Likud into elections due next November, the prime minister is eager not to exacerbate his rivalry with the foreign minister, according to political analysts here. "It is not good for Shamir to be on such bad terms with Levy," says Hebrew University political scientist Menachem Hoffnung. "Levy can cause him troubles within the Likud and hurt his chances of winning the elections in general," he said. Although the new makeup of the Israeli negotiating teams appears to have satisfied the foreign minister for the time being, the episode has illustrated how easily the peace process could be held hostage to internal Likud politics as the elections approach. "The peace process and turf politics cannot be unlinked," says one government official. Although Levy has not formally announced that he will be a candidate for leadership of the Likud when the party makes its choice next February, his supporters are urging him to run, and he is showing every sign of heeding them. For support within the Likud party he draws heavily on his fellow Sephardic Jews, who originated in North Africa and the Middle East, and relies also on a broad network of town mayors - led by his brother - as a political base. With those mayors currently rallying around a demand for higher budgets to meet social needs, it is not inconceivable that Levy might distance himself from Shamir's hard-line position to argue that territorial concession resulting in a greater sense of peace and security would free up money needed for social projects in the towns. Though it was Levy, in alliance with Mr. Sharon, who derailed Shamir's 1989 peace initiative, such an ideological about-face would cause little surprise in Israeli politics. "It's just a power struggle," says Mr. Hoffnung, adding that in Israel interest groups come before ideas and power politics are put above all else.

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Power politics Power politics also seem behind the creation of Palestinian "political committees" in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, announced Nov. 10 at a celebration in Jerusalem to welcome the Palestinian delegation home from Madrid. The committees were unveiled, to the obvious consternation of Mr. Husseini and his fellow delegates, by Ziad Ali Abu Zayyad, a prominent Palestinian journalist who did not go to the peace conference but who wields considerable influence in the occupied territories. Although he said they were designed to support the peace process and the delegation, the committees are widely seen as a vehicle to promote Mr. Abu Zayyad's own political standing, and possibly to rein in the official delegation. "This was a surprise for all of us, and in general we are not happy with it," said Ghassan al-Khatib, a member of the Palestinian team in Madrid. "We hope [the committees] can either be dissolved or restructured from the beginning." The members of the committees are all identified with the mainstream Fatah group within the Palestine Liberation Organization, a fact that Husseini appeared to condemn at a press conference on Nov. 11.

One political line "The committees represent ... one of the political lines within the Palestinian people," he said. "But still we are looking forward to having more general committees which can represent all the political lines within the Palestinian community." "These committees are still ongoing," said delegation spokes-woman Hanan Ashrawi, "they are not rigid or static or formed." Another member of the delegation to Madrid, Saeb Erekat, said about the committees: "So far it has been words, nothing is final. The definition of what to do is not decided at this point." Members of the delegation say they are working on the formation of technical committees to provide expertise on specific aspects of the negotiations with Israel over how authority will be transferred to Palestinians in the occupied territories. In the meantime, however, the moves that Levy and Abu Zayyad have made show that both Israeli and Palestinian political leaders will have to show as much savvy at home as at the negotiating table.