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MIDDLE EAST: Israel’s Dayan Walks Out

5 minute read

Angry resignation over West Bank weakens Begin regime

Moshe Dayan, Israel’s hot-tempered war hero and Foreign Minister, has long been angry about the creeping pace of negotiations on the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He blames not only the Arabs but also the intransigents on the Israeli side for blocking any opportunity of a breakthrough. In the midst of this week’s Sunday morning Cabinet meeting, in a move that cast a pall over the whole negotiating process, Dayan translated his anger into action by abruptly resigning. He openly attributed his step to “my dissatisfaction with the way the [West Bank] autonomy talks are being conducted.”

Ailing Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who said that he and Dayan “parted in friendship and warmth,” planned to take over the Foreign Ministry himself, at least for the time being. (A logical replacement, Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin, is in the hospital after suffering a heart attack.) But Dayan’s departure is a sharp blow to the whole political future of the Begin regime. Opposition Leader Shimon Peres immediately called for Begin himself to resign and hold new elections. Although Begin is highly unlikely to take that course, his position is seriously weakened. Not only does Dayan have a considerable personal following, but other recent defections have narrowed the parliamentary majority of Begin’s patchwork conservative Likud coalition from 78 to 63 out of 120 seats.

Another factor in Dayan’s conflict with the Begin regime was the endless controversy over Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Leading the fight for more settlements was Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon,— who last week submitted to the Cabinet a proposal calling for the expropriation of between 2,500 and 4,000 acres of privately owned Arab land on the West Bank. Dayan himself believes that all Israelis should have freedom of movement on the West Bank, but he is well aware that the Israeli settlements are passionately opposed by the Arabs, and that the U.S. has called them illegal.

In the acrimonious debate, both Dayan and Defense Minister Ezer Weizman threatened to resign. The deeply divided Cabinet voted down Sharon’s proposal, but approved a “compromise” to expand seven existing Israeli settlements by expropriating 1,000 acres of publicly held Arab land (that is, land in which proof of private ownership does not exist). That was not enough for the nationalistic Gush Emunim, which fanned out over the West Bank and set up 35 to 40 squatters’ settlements in protest. Israeli troops evicted them and tore down their tents. But the Cabinet’s move to expand the seven settlements brought a stinging blast from Egyptian Premier Mustafa Khalil.

In an unusually candid TV interview, Dayan stated his own version of the type of policy Israel must follow if it wants progress on the Palestinian problem: a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli military government authorities from the West Bank and an evacuation of Israeli military forces from Arab population centers. Dayan proposed that the responsibility for municipal issues be transferred to local Palestinian councils even before the autonomy talks are concluded. That was clearly not a policy that appeals to Menachem Begin or the hawks in his Cabinet and so Dayan walked out.

His departure threw the talks themselves into confusion just when President Carter’s Special Envoy Robert Strauss was due in London this week in an effort to provide some momentum. It was unclear what effect Dayan’s resignation would have, but U.S. and Arab diplomats both regretted the loss of one of Israel’s most flexible and imaginative leaders.

In a no less important area of negotiations, the U.S. was preparing a new diplomatic effort. This time the main goal was to turn the jittery ceasefire in Lebanon into a lasting truce. The hope is that United Nations and Lebanese forces can gradually take over the tenuous peacekeeping tasks performed over the past three years by Syria’s 30,000-man occupying force.

The Administration is dispatching Philip C. Habib, former Under Secretary of State and now a special adviser to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, for talks in Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and the Vatican. Habib hopes to persuade Jordan’s King Hussein and Syrian President Hafez Assad to pressure the Palestine Liberation Organization into withdrawing its guerrilla forces in Lebanon north of the Litani River. Lebanese army units would be beefed up and U.N. peace-keeping forces (UNIFIL) increased from 6,000 to 10,000. At the same tune, Habib hopes to convince the Israelis that they must control their aggressive, surrogate Christian militia south of the Litani, led by Major Sa’ad Haddad.

If those measures could be worked out in the next few weeks, U.S. officials believe, the Syrians would then agree to bring some of their peace-keeping troops home. Explains a State Department Middle East expert: “We know that Assad, for domestic political reasons, wants to get his troops out of Lebanon. There has been a lot of grumbling in the ranks about the hopelessness of their role there. On the other hand, Assad wants to be certain of the truce’s chances. He doesn’t want to withdraw and find his own security jeopardized by a new civil war.” The Israelis are unhappy with the occupying role Syria plays in Lebanon. They also fear that any troops recalled from Lebanon could be used to reinforce Assad’s forces on the Golan Heights. Last week military officials in Tel Aviv were concerned over reports that Assad had returned from Moscow with the promise of at least 200 more Soviet T-72 tanks and an unknown number of MiG-25 interceptors.

That, like Dayan’s resignation, suggested an ominous future.

* Sharon, due in the U.S. this week to argue his cause, postponed his trip after Dayan’s resignation.

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