Israel's coalition Cabinet is waiting to see whether Prime Minister Shimon Peres can translate his diplomatic victories abroad into political victories at home. The challenge for the prime minister is to keep his government together long enough to enter peace negotiations with a Jordanian-Palestinian team, but not so long that he will be forced to hand over the premiership to Yitzhak Shamir, leader of the opposition Likud bloc, as he agreed to do a year ago.
Mr. Peres was harshly criticized yesterday by Likud Cabinet members for his UN speech last week. That speech earned him accolades from the Reagan administration and Jordan's King Hussein.
Only hours after returning to Israel from an 11-day trip to Austria, the United States, and France, Peres chaired a tense, six-hour debate on the peace proposals he outlined to the UN General Assembly last Monday.
No decisions were announced after the Cabinet meeting, but Peres was scheduled to go before the Knesset (Israeli parliament), today to give ``clarifications'' of his speech.
On his trip from France Saturday night, the prime minister appeared ebullient, looking forward to the Cabinet debate. Peres said he had been encouraged by his reception in Washington, New York, and Paris.
``We are in the midst of a very intense diplomatic process,'' said an official traveling with the prime minister. ``Altogether, it's moving from all sides in the right direction and we are probably closer to direct negotiations than we were when we went to Washington.''
Peres told the UN General Assembly that he favored direct negotiations between Israel and Jordan, or between Israel and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian team. He also said that ``the permanent members of the Security Council may be invited to support the initiation of these negotiations.''
The reference to Security Council participation was hailed by US officials who see it as a concession to King Hussein's call for a UN-sponsored international peace conference.
But the speech drew an immediate, sharp response from some Likud ministers, headed by Ariel Sharon, minister for industry and trade. In a meeting Saturday night, the Likud ministers -- who comprise one-half of Peres's Cabinet -- voted to reject negotiations under any form of international auspices. Likud also took exception to Peres's remark in his speech that, among other things, negotiations should lead to demarcation of boundaries. The Likud is adamantly opposed to any sort of territorial compromise with Jordan on the West Bank which Israel occupied in the 1967 Mideast war.
Peres appeared confident that his government would withstand the argument over his speech. Likud appears to be split between those who want to continue in the government and those who would like to see it collapse.
Both sides are angling for a better position in the coming Herut leadership caucus. It is expected that both Gen. Sharon and Housing Minister David Levy will challenge Yitzhak Shamir for control of Herut, the largest Likud faction, during December's convention.
Labor's agreement one year ago to turn over the premiership to Likud in Oct. 1986 is valid only so long as Shamir is head of Likud. Shamir and his ally in Herut, minister-without-portfolio Moshe Arens, have sought to downplay the importance of Peres's speech, in an effort to avoid a confrontation that would lead to the government's collapse.
``There are two Likuds now, Likud A and Likud B,'' mocked one Labor official. ``Likud A, the Shamir Likud, won't say too much against Peres. Likud B, Sharon's Likud, hated it.''
All Likud members, however, are apprehensive that Peres might actually be getting close to a diplomatic breakthrough that would enable some sort of talks to begin with a Jordanian-Palestinian team.
Likud campaign strategist and Knesset member Ehud Olmert has said repeatedly that Labor's only hope of winning an election, if it brought down the government before the scheduled rotation, lay in presenting voters with a clear-cut issue of peace.
Peres has let it be known that he feels there is a good chance of that issue arising in the next three months.
He set as goals the weakening of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the strengthening of King Hussein's ability to enter negotiatons without the PLO.
Agreeing to some sort of international sponsoring of talks between Israel and Jordan would give Hussein the backing he needs to deal with Israel, according to officials around Peres. Jordon has insisted on a role for the Soviet Union in a peace conference, a requirement previously rejected by Israel and the US.
Peres now seems committed to finding a way to involve the Soviets. He met in New York with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze Wednesday night, and said that the meeting was a friendly one. Mr. Shevardnadze reportedly raised the possibility of another meeting after next month's US-Soviet summit.
Peres announced at a Friday press conference in Paris that the French had agreed to airlift Jewish emigrants from the Soviet Union directly to Israel, if that would hasten emigration for some 400,000 Jews who have applied to leave the Soviet Union.
Peres has made the restoration of diplomatic ties between the Soviet Union and Israel a precondition for Soviet participation in an international peace conference. It is understood, however, that the prime minister would probably accept a dramatic increase in the emigration of Soviet Jews to Israel as an indication that Soviet policy toward Israel had changed.