Israel's New Leader Seeks Dialogue With Right, Pushes Peace
Peres puts next year's election campaign on back burner
ACTING Prime Minister Shimon Peres is already making good on his commitment to put peace above his party's victory at the polls.
''Mr. Peres has repeatedly said that he regards it as more important to make peace than to win an election. That is our slogan,'' said Economics Minister Yossi Beilin, a Peres protege and one of his most loyal supporters.
Peres, who deftly assumed the reins of government after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated early this month, is determined to make the next 12 months business-as-usual for Middle East peace. He has decided against early elections, scheduled to be held about a year from now.
''As far as we are concerned it's not an election year. It's a year to achieve something,'' Mr. Beilin said.
He also indicated that Peres would engage the Israeli right wing in an ongoing dialogue.
At the same time, Peres is likely to take a hard line against extremists, some of whom are seen as responsible for encouraging an atmosphere of hatred against Rabin.
''We have to listen to the democratic right and to understand their demands,'' said Beilin, noting the need to differentiate between the moderate and radical right among religious Jews and settlers.
Meanwhile, Peres has moved swiftly to assert his authority within the Labor Party, which backed him unanimously as their candidate for prime minister.
Israeli President Ezer Weizman on Wednesday night formally requested Peres to form a new government - a task that aides say will be completed within a week.
Peres, who confirmed yesterday that he intends to keep the key defense portfolio, is expected to relinquish his post as foreign minister to Interior Minister Ehud Barak, the former military chief of staff whom Labor Party hawks favored as defense minister.
''I am as concerned as the late prime minister was about the security of Israel,'' Peres told reporters at a news conference Tuesday from a hilltop on the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which illustrated dramatically the proximity of Palestinian towns to Tel Aviv.
He added that he intended to proceed cautiously with implementing security in a ''changed and changing situation.''
The important portfolio of the interior ministry is expected to go to Haim Ramon, the outgoing leader of the Israeli trade union federation, Histadrut, who said he was returning to the Labor Party and would not stand against Peres before next year's scheduled national elections, defusing the prospect of a damaging power struggle between the two men.
The prospect of a political battle between Barak and Peres was reduced yesterday when Barak indicated that he would be content with the foreign-affairs post.
In his first interviews and news conferences since becoming acting prime minister two weeks ago, Peres indicated that he intends to broaden the definition of peace and security in Israeli politics while, at the same time, forging a dialogue with the democratic right.
''What we need is a region of peace ... not just lines of peace,'' said Peres, who was surrounded by armed security guards and wearing a suede jacket to conceal his bulletproof vest. Peres was speaking after the withdrawal of Israeli soldiers from the West Bank town of Jenin this week - six days ahead of the schedule agreed by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators under the second phase of the Israel-PLO peace accord.
Jenin is the first of six West Bank towns earmarked for the extension of Palestinian autonomy Dec. 20.
Western diplomats and analysts said Peres's remarks held out the hope that he would look at peace and security in a more regional context.
''He will be under pressure to be a lot more hawkish than usual on all issues. But it should be remembered that Peres has a track record both as prime minister and defense minister and has impressive achievements in both roles,'' said political scientist Peter Medding of Jerusalem's Hebrew University.
But Professor Medding added that Peres had lost much of his past security image and would need the strong support of Interior Minister Ehud Barak as well as the upper echelons of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).
Peres has also moved to jump-start the stalled peace talks with Syria. He favors direct political contact with the Syrians rather than US mediation, but Western diplomats said progress would depend on signals from the Syrian side.
''We wouldn't want to overload the circuit before Israel has had a chance to heal the wounds created by the Rabin assassination,'' one diplomat said.
Peres has indicated that he is prepared to move beyond the security-first approach of the Rabin administration and put all issues on the table with the Syrians. But Israeli officials remain doubtful as to Syrian intentions.
''There is hesitation in Damascus,'' Economics Minister Beilin told the Monitor Wednesday.
''It is difficult to work out what is going on there. I do not see the readiness of their side to normalize relations with Israel and give us the security guarantees we need,'' Beilin said. ''Nevertheless, we are going to continue.''
Peres has also indicated that he is not wedded to rigid political separation between Palestinians and Israelis.
''The question is whether there has to be separation,'' Peres said at the hilltop news conference.
''Normally our security forces will be along the line [between the West Bank and Israel]. But what means the people prefer - whether fences, guards or walls or other means of relations - we will have to weighed very carefully,'' Peres said.
He said he would welcome a deal between the PLO and the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, to halt attacks on Israel and take part in the Palestinian elections.
''If Hamas will abandon violence and terror ... welcome to the club. Hamas without guns is not Hamas,'' Peres said.