Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres has gone on the offensive against foes of his peace overtures to Jordan. Mr. Peres announced Wednesday his intention to fire Ariel Sharon, the most vocal hawk in his coalition government.
It was too early at press time to tell what the outcome of the crisis would be -- beyond driving home Peres's most serious warning yet to Cabinet hawks against sniping at his efforts to arrange peace talks with Jordan.
These efforts have sparked concern from Mr. Sharon and other conservatives that Peres is ready to give away too much for too little.
If the prime minister does not reconsider, he could force the collapse of the coalition and strengthen his own hand in shaping a new government.
Aides have been pressing him to do just that. Under the coalition agreement with his main Cabinet partner, the right-wing Likud bloc, Peres is scheduled to ``rotate'' as prime minister next fall with Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir. Sharon, a Likud member, is now minister for industry and trade.
Whatever the outcome of the crisis, Peres still seems far from assured of sufficient domestic leeway to reach an early compromise with Jordan over guidlines for convening peace talks.
The Peres move also runs the risk in the longer term of making an ousted Sharon a rallying point for opposition to any Israeli negotiating concessions.
At press time Israeli Cabinet was in an emergency session, amid efforts by some ministers to arrange a face-saving compromise between Peres and Sharon. Peres, angered at Sharon's scathing criticism of the government's Mideast diplomacy, was reportedly standing firm in his intention formally to announce Sharon's dismissal at the meeting.
Peres rejected as inadequate a hedged, three-sentence ``apology'' from Sharon, Israeli Radio reported. Sharon said he stood by the substance of his criticism, while regretting anything Peres might have taken as an affront, and stated Sharon's own hope that the coalition would survive.
Should Peres stand firm, under Israeli law Sharon's ouster would become effective in 48 hours. The two-day interlude would promise further infighting among Israel's mix of political forces, with increased likelihood that Peres's coalition Cabinet would fall.
Peres is understood to have been sounding out various small parties, including Orthodox Jewish factions, on the prospects of papering together a new coalition of convenience -- minus the Likud -- if the present Cabinet falls.
The last national election, in 1984, was a photo finish, leaving neither Peres's left-leaning Labor Party nor the Likud with sufficient parliamentary strength to form a government alone.
In the tighest corner of all is Likud party leader Shamir. He is no great fan of Sharon and wants the government to survive long enough to become prime minister by ``rotation'' next year. But Mr. Shamir would be hard pressed to sacrifice Sharon to Peres's ire in the process -- especially since the published coalition guidelines bar the firing of any Likud minister without the Likud leader's OK.
Peres insists Israeli law takes precedent over this coalition agreement, and says the law gives a prime minister the right to fire anyone he wants.
The big winners of this dilemma could ultimately turn out to be Peres and Sharon, says one Likud source.
``Peres's image of a leader will gain by his standing tough against Sharon,'' the source says. ``Sharon, for his part, will become the focus of genuine Likud opposition to negotiating concessions -- eclipsing the party leader, Shamir.''
Shamir took over a party that was in crisis after Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin suddenly retired into seclusion two years ago. Since then Shamir has functioned chiefly as a moderator in a brewing struggle for power pitting Sharon, a figure of controversy but a forceful stump orator, against other younger Likud leaders. In recent weeks the Likud infighting has worsened -- to the delight of Peres's Labor Party.
On the face of it, Peres would therefore be in a position of strength for any new national election.
But, Israeli politicians say privately, Peres's move might also boost Sharon's comeback in Likud.
As defense minister and main architect of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Sharon was pressured to resign after an Israeli government inquiry into the massacre of Palestinians by Israel's Christian allies in Lebanon.
Some political analysts also argue that Peres's present large lead over Sharon (and everyone else) in opinion polls could quickly narrow in an election campaign focusing on the peace moves with Jordan.
The substance of Sharon's cricitism of the coalition was that it was ready to cede too much to Jordan's King Hussein.
The analysts believe that Peres, in countering such charges on the stump, would have to demonstrate concrete negotiating concessions from Jordan.
King Hussein, on the other hand, is under constraints of his own -- in the shape of pressure from other Arab leaders not to deal away concessions on the road to a peace conference with the Israelis.