Sinai pullout plans will go ahead, but Israelis face possible new election
Jerusalem — Israel's planned pullout from Sinai in a month's time seemed certain to go ahead despite Prime Minister Menachem Begin's near fall from power.
But the dramatic tie vote March 23 on a Knesset no-confidence motion has opened the prospect of new elections perhaps as early as next November, and the possibility of new political directions if the Labor Party wins.
Begin, who mooted the possibility of November elections after the tie vote, said it would be ''a battle for the future of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) ,'' a term used in this context to designate the West Bank.
The Labor Party advocates a territorial solution in which Israel would return the bulk of the West Bank to Arab sovereignty while retaining a security belt along the Jordan. Begin's Likud Bloc rejects Arab sovereignty on the West Bank.
The prime minister made it clear that even if his government falls in the next few days, Israel would honor its commitment to leave Sinai April 25 under its peace treaty with Egypt. Begin would continue to head a caretaker government , perhaps for months, before new elections are held. A lame-duck caretaker government has even more stability than a regular government since it cannot be ousted and is impervious to threats of parliamentary no-confidence motions.
If elections are held this year, well before half the four-year mandate given the Likud government last year has run its course, Begin could theoretically be tempted to carry out some much-desired action on the West Bank or in southern Lebanon before submitting to the uncertainty of the ballot box. Begin aides including Defense Minister Ariel Sharon have suggested that Israel would extend its law to the West Bank - in effect, annex it -- if Egypt fails to honor its obligations under the peace treaty. It is difficult, however, to imagine such an eventuality occurring in the next few months.
The presence of armed Palestinians and Syrian missiles in southern Lebanon constitutes a standing grievance for Israel, and it is much easier to imagine some action here. Israel has complained a number of times that the Palestinians have violated the cease-fire along the Lebanese border. The capture March 23 by Israeli troops of a three-man squad of Palestinian guerrillas could presumably serve as a causus belli if Israel so chose. The Palestinians were ''headed for Israeli territory,'' according to the Israeli Army spokesman. They were captured three miles north of the Israeli border.
Recent public opinion polls indicate the Likud would do better than it did in last June's elections if new elections were held now. A poll published two weeks ago showed Likud winning 53 seats in the 120-seat Knesset compared to 48 last June. Labor would win only 40 according to this poll, compared to 47 last year. Labor leaders, however, express confidence that these results would be reversed when the election campaign gets under way.
A major question is whether Begin will head the Likud ticket again, something that is dependent on his fragile health. Much of the support Likud won last year was a personal vote for Begin.
Begin's decision not to request new elections despite his inability to win a majority on the no-confidence vote submitted by the Labor opposition was greeted with a sigh of relief by his coalition partners and by much of the Labor opposition as well. Labor has been calling periodic no-confidence votes during the past year as a harassment tactic, but many Labor Knesset members have made it clear that they didn't really want to topple Begin before he had completed the delicate task of evacuating the last Israelis from Sinai.
There was a general sigh of relief from the public as well. The prospect of a grueling election campaign is more than most people want to contemplate.
Meanwhile, unrest continues on the West Bank. Three more Palestinians died March 24. In all five Palestinians have died during a week of rioting against Israeli rule.