Israelis weigh peace parley. But early elections unlikely despite Cabinet split

The Israeli government's divisions over whether to support an international Middle East peace conference are unlikely to lead to elections in the immediate future, according to analysts here. Even if the Cabinet deadlocks on the issue, these sources say, a period of political maneuvering and parliamentary moves is bound to follow. This would delay for weeks a decision on whether to call new elections, which normally are not due until late 1988.

Israel's 10-man ``inner Cabinet'' began discussion of the international conference issue yesterday. The four-hour meeting, which was widely expected to be a stormy affair, turned out to be a businesslike exchange of views in which no decision was reached. The ministers decided to resume their debate tomorrow, before Foreign Minister Shimon Peres's departure for the United States.

Observers say it may take some time before matters come to a head. On Monday, Mr. Peres presented his plan for direct talks with a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, to be preceded by an international conference on Mideast peace. (See related story, Page 2.)

Peres cited a letter, reportedly received Sunday night, from US Secretary of State George Shultz urging both Peres and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to seize the opportunity that has been created to promote the peace process.

Peres has been pushing for a speedy decision by the Cabinet so as to capitalize quickly on the apparent agreement he has achieved with Jordan on the terms of the conference. His aides have warned that any delay could risk a change of heart by Jordan, a shift in the Soviet Union's readiness to take part in the conference, or a different policy by Washington after the US presidential elections in 1988.

Peres noted Mr. Shultz's assurances that the international conference would lead to direct talks and would not be able to impose solutions on the negotiating parties. He apparently hopes to return from the US with additional American assurances to dispel doubts about an international conference raised by Mr. Shamir and his rightist Likud bloc.

At the same time, Peres appears ready to allow the Cabinet to debate the issue for a limited period in hopes that he can provide answers to criticism of the international conference by Shamir and Likud ministers. The Cabinet debate is expected to focus on the Likud's concerns that an international conference would impose solutions on the parties by providing a forum for pressure on Israel by the Soviet Union and other international participants, as well as allowing for participation by the Palestine Liberation Organization (which Israel regards as a terrorist group).

Likud ministers have warned that Israel would be forced into vital territorial concessions by the combined pressure of conference members. Likud spokesmen have rejected Peres's attempt to limit the time of debate and say they want full answers to their questions before their vote is taken.

Though a compromise formula could be worked out, both parties appeared this week to be digging in their heels, with the Likud squarely opposed to, and Labor solidly behind, an international conference.

The debate has sparked renewed activities by Israeli protest movements. Demonstrators from both the Peace Now and Gush Emunim movements protested Monday outside Shamir's office.

These protests followed a larger one Sunday, when some 1,000 Peace Now demonstrators marched to Shamir's home, urging him to agree to an international conference and ``give peace a chance.'' Hecklers from the Gush Emunim, which supports Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, lined the march route.

Peres has insisted he will move for new elections if the evenly split inner Cabinet is unable to decide on the international conference issue. The actual process may take weeks, however.

For new elections to be called, Peres must come up with a parliamentary majority of just over 50 percent in favor of new elections. This majority is still not assured, and both Labor and Likud have already begun efforts to persuade smaller parliamentary factions to vote with them. Likud has opposed new elections both because its leader is currently prime minister and because its popularity has dropped in recent opinion polls.

Although Peres has said elections may be necessary to achieve a popular mandate for peace moves, observers note that the uncertain political situation caused by such elections would disrupt the Middle East peace process.

In addition, the voting in Israel could end in a tie, as it did in the previous elections in 1984, leaving neither major party with a clear mandate to form a government and forcing both Labor and the Likud into the same political disagreements once again.

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