US envoy's Mideast visit highlights Israeli divisions

Further movement toward Middle East peace talks may hasten the moment of truth for Israel's divided ``national unity'' government. Prime Minister Shimon Peres could be faced with the choice of preserving his government and risking deadlock on Mideast issues, or making decisions unacceptable to his coalition partner -- the Likud bloc -- which would likely dissolve the Cabinet, analysts say.

The deep differences within the Cabinet are highlighted by Israel's response to the sudden visit of United States envoy Richard Murphy to the Middle East.

The coincidence of Mr. Murphy's visit with a Cabinet debate over relations with Egypt has aggravated disagreements over the peace process between the right-wing Likud bloc and centrist Labor Party.

Officially, Israel opposes any meeting between the US and a Jordanian-Palestinian team on grounds that such a move would work against the possibility of direct talks with Israel. The Israelis specifically oppose meetings with delegates associated with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Such talks, officials say, would constitute US recognition of what Israel considers a terrorist group.

But below the surface, differences are discernible between the positions of Prime Minister Peres of Labor and Likud Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

Mr. Shamir launched a full-scale attack Tuesday against a possible meeting between Murphy and ``a Jordanian-PLO delegation.'' Shamir said that such talks would have ``serious implications'' for the Mideast peace process and for Israel's relations with the US.

Officials from Shamir's ministry say Israel opposes US representatives meeting with any Jordanian-Palestinian team, even if the delegation includes only supporters -- and not members -- of the PLO.

Prime Minister Peres, however, was less strident.

He politely protested the proposed meeting to US Ambassador Thomas Pickering, but at the same time did not prevent the departure to Amman of Hanna Siniora, a prominent Palestinian from east Jerusalem, a proposed member of the joint delegation. Before he left, Mr. Siniora expressed support for PLO representation of Palestinians in talks.

Peres has said he accepts two members of the joint delegation, which was proposed to the US by Jordan last month after consultation with the PLO.

To underscore his willingness to negotiate with ``moderate'' Palestinians from the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Peres met yesterday with former Gaza mayor, Rashad Shawwa, and last month talked with Bethlehem mayor Elias Freij and former Jordanian parliament member Hikmat al-Masri of Nablus.

The different responses of Peres and Shamir reflected the basic ideological split between their parties. While Peres has been pushing for Israeli diplomatic initiatives to achieve the long-held Labor aim of territorial compromise with Jordan, Shamir has adamantly opposed any moves that could lead to the relinquishment of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which his party wants to retain under Israeli sovereignty.

The union of opposites under one Cabinet roof was again evidenced in this week's Peres-Shamir debate over Taba, a strip of beach claimed by both Israel and Egypt, in the Sinai peninsula.

Israel retained control of the area when it withdrew from Sinai under terms of its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, but persistent disagreement over the strip has blocked improvement of relations between the two countries.

Peres insisted that Israel agree to the Egyptian demand that the issue be submitted to arbitration. Shamir rejected the move as capitulation and demanded that the matter be resolved through mutual compromise.

The issue threatened to cause a Cabinet crisis before it was apparently defused by a proposed agreement on a compromise formula. According to the reported proposal, Israel would suggest to Egypt that the two countries first define the issues in dispute before discussing how they would be resolved.

This debate too threw into sharp relief the strains in Israel's dual leadership. Peres pushed for agreement on arbitration to warm relations with Egypt and set the stage for further diplomatic movement in the region. Shamir dug his heels in against any compromise to prevent precisely such movement, which he fears could lead to talks on giving up the occupied territories.

Shamir also talked tough to shore up his leadership in his own party, where he is being seriously challenged by ministers David Levy and Ariel Sharon.

Since its inauguration a year ago, the ``national unity'' Cabinet has taken two major decisions over the objections of key Likud ministers: the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon in June and a package of harsh economic austerity measures adopted last month.

By staunchly opposing compromise on Taba and the proposed Murphy talks, Shamir seemed intent on proving he can regain the clout his party has lost in the coalition Cabinet.

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