AS Israelis ready themselves for another round of James Baker III's shuttle diplomacy, the possibility that the United States secretary of state's Middle East peace initiative might lead somewhere has stirred anxious political ferment within the government here. Though critics on the left say they doubt Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's sincerity in agreeing to attend a regional peace conference, suspecting it is no more than a tactical move, his allies on the right are taking his stance at face value.
Already they are mobilizing to try to head him off.
At the helm of a fragile government coalition with only a narrow parliamentary majority, Mr. Shamir could be vulnerable to breakaway movements by partners opposed to a peace settlement along the lines envisioned by the Americans.
But for now, government officials and political commentators say, the premier is in comfortable control.
No thanks to Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, however, who within the ruling Likud Party is leading the challenge to Shamir's peace policy, accusing the prime minister of keeping the country in the dark about his plans.
Mr. Sharon has made no secret of his own plans to build 13,000 new homes for Jewish settlers in the Israeli-occupied territories. It is a move apparently deliberately designed to infuriate both Palestinians and Washington at a delicate moment in the peace process. Sharon has also demanded that Shamir convene the Likud central committee to debate the US peace initiative, a step Shamir appears reluctant to take.
Shamir vs. Sharon
Such a debate among the more than 3,000 members of the committee would inevitably be messy, party officials say, especially since Sharon, as president of the body, would control the agenda and procedures. But if it came to a fight, the premier would almost certainly carry the day, according to local analysts.
Two years ago, when Shamir launched his own peace plan, he was forced to toughen its terms under pressure from three of his Cabinet ministers - Ariel Sharon, David Levy, and Yitzhak Modai. But even against their combined opposition, he weathered the challenge to his leadership.
Today Mr. Modai is no longer a member of the Likud, Mr. Levy is foreign minister and allied with Shamir, and the prime minister also has the support of Defense Minister Moshe Arens.
"Sharon is going it alone, basically," says Naomi Chazan, head of the Truman Institute, a research foundation attached to Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "He is in a much weaker position than in the past."
"Shamir has Levy and Arens, two of the three barons of the Likud, on his side, and that constellation is unbeatable," agrees Zeev Chafets, a former government spokesman under former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, now editor of Jerusalem Report magazine.
Nonetheless, Sharon has staked out his process, adds Mr. Chafets. "If he said nothing it would have no political value."
At the same time, Sharon's outspoken opposition to peace moves has its value to Shamir, Chafets points out. "It allows Shamir to go to Baker and say 'I'd like to do this or that, as you want, but I can't. Look at the trouble it would cause at home.' It makes Shamir look more moderate in American eyes, and this is a positive advantage to have in negotiations."
Possibly more troublesome than the hawks within Likud are the three small, extreme right-wing parties that are members of the government, Tehiya, Tzomet, and Molodet. The first two advocate Israeli annexation of all occupied territories, while Molodet also favors deporting all Palestinians in the territories across the Jordan River.
Holding seven of the Knesset's (parliament's) 120 seats, these three parties could bring Shamir's government down if they withdrew their support, a threat they have already voiced.
"As far as Tehiya is concerned, we shall not agree to remain in a coalition which limits settlement," Tehiya Knesset member Elyakim Haetzni warned last week.
A freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank is one of the confidence-building measures that Baker is said to be asking of the Israeli government in advance of any peace conference.
Whether or not Tehiya or another party would actually carry out such a threat, forcing fresh elections, is by no means clear. While some of the leaders of the extreme right believe Israelis are in a more hawkish mood after the Gulf war, which would favor their parties, others are less confident of the outcome of a national vote.
At the same time, says a government official, "the right-wing parties have a lot to lose. They've got ministries, they've got budgets, they've got influence. Being inside pays more than being outside" the government.
Gauging the far right
How far the extreme right would go to bring the government down, "will depend on the issue," Chafets says. "They'd stop short of resigning if the issue is whether to go to a peace conference. But they would resign at any decision to slow settlement, or any sign of a concession on territory."
Whether the government breaks up, adds Ms. Chazan "depends on how concrete the government's plans on the peace front become. The firmer they get, the more friction will develop."
The prime minister, some officials say privately, could call elections if he felt pressured by Washington to make concessions he was not ready to offer. Given the advance warning of elections that must be given under the Israeli Constitution, and the likely time it would take to piece together a government after a vote, elections would freeze any peace process for six months, and probably more, politicians say.
But in the face of a range of domestic issues on which the government would risk public wrath, from mounting unemployment to its handling of the current tide of Soviet immigrants, "calling elections as a method of stalling the peace process might be cutting off one's nose to spite one's face," warns Chazan. "I wouldn't bet on what would happen."
Such potential developments, however, are unlikely to trouble the political waters in the immediate future. The current sound and fury from the right wing, says the government official, is aimed not at sparking a crisis now, but "at preparing the ground for a future crisis. At the moment this is a typical Israeli melodrama, that could become a real drama."