The angry resignation of Israel's "moderate" defense minister, Ezer Weizman, seems likely to affect the Palestinian autonomy talks a lot less than concerned United States officials and liberal Israelis suggest.
Their argument is that without the restraining influence of Mr. Weizman, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin will take an even tougher tack toward the more than 1 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip.
Reinforcing this concern, Mr. Begin proposed May 27 to give hard-line Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir the defense portfolio and shift Energy Minister Yitzhak Modai, another staunch conservative on Palestinian autonomy issues, to the Foreign Ministry.
By May 28, the reshuffle formula was threatened by now-traditional bickering within the ruling coalition. Mr. Begin's political shrewdness was once again expected to pull him through the Cabinet crisis, at least for the time being.
But a close look at past Begin government performance -- and talks with Israeli officials, Palestinian leaders, local political analysts, and friends of the departing defense minister -- indicates that Mr. Weizman's resignation will not make much substantive difference to the autonomy negotiations.
For one thing, the man Egyptian President Anwar Sadat liked to call "my friend Ezra" is a lot less "moderate" than much of the outside world seems to believe.
Next to Mr. Begin, he indeed looked like a moderate. But that is not saying much. It is true that Mr. Weizman, whose distinctly unsurprising resignation took effect May 28, voted against Cabinet approval for Jewish settlement in or around major Arab towns on the West Bank. But, at least while in government, he had no visible objection to settlement on "security" grounds, no less a sore point for Palestinians and for Egyptian and US autonomy negotiators.
Mr. Weizman's objection to some settlements "was largely a matter of tactics, " argues one Israeli analyst close to the outgoing defense minister. "He felt such moves made negotiations with Egypt all but impossible."
But the defense minister never pushed for granting significantly greater powers to an eventual Palestinian self-governing authority than Israel's so-called hard-liners do.
"Moderate" or not, Mr. Weizman had virtually no success in softening Begin government policy in the Palestinian peace talks.
Indeed, the quick-tempered defense minister boycotted the Israeli negotiating team during most of the talks. This, informed Israeli sources said, was out of dual pique at what he saw as Mr. Begin's lack of diplomatic subtlety and at the more prominent negotiating roles given to men such as Interior Minister Yosef Burg than to Mr. Weizman.
On rejoining the talks in Herzliya Israel, early in May, Mr. Weizman sided with other Israeli negotiators in balking at an Egyptian proposal to trim severely Israel's military role in the occupied territories under an eventual Palestinian autonomy arrangement.
Within the Israeli Cabinet, Mr. Weizman's opposition to some settlement decisions made more headlines than practical difference. The most controversial of all, a late-March Cabinet approval for a Jewish presence in the heart of a West Bank Arab town delivered just as US negotiator Sol Linowitz was arriving in Israel, went ahead regardless of Mr. Weizman's vocal protests.
With or without Mr. Weizman at his side, Prime Minister Begin is unlikely to change his stand on the Palestinians.
Mr. Begin has not changed his vision of autonomy, and shows no sign of changing it now -- with or without Mr. Weizman's dissenting Cabinet voice.
Indeed, the final irony in the saga of Defense Minister Ezer Weizman may be that he will do more to moderate Israeli policy on the Palestinians by leaving than by taking on Mr. Begin inside the Cabinet chamber.