Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin lost his temper during a debate on Middle East policy in parliament yesterday, angrily tearing up a piece of paper to dramatize what he termed the hypocrisy surrounding recent discussions with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
The emotional shouting match between Begin and opposition leader Shimon Peres and another emotional outburst earlier this week involving Defense Minister Ezer Weizman underscore the tension and acrimony that have beset Israel's cabinet since Sadat suddenly and unexpectedly revived his peace effort.
A highlight of Sadat's new initiative has been his meetings last week in Austria, with Peres, who is head of the Labor Party, and with Weizman.
His voice rising as he spoke, Begin suggested that Peres had been duped by the Egyptian president, declaring, "You sat with him for 200 minutes and you never once asked him if he would agree to border changes [on the Israeli-occupied West Bank]. That is the height of hypocrisy."
In response, Peres said that Sadat already has agreed informally to border changes, and that at no time did Sadat suggest to Peres that changes would be token adjustments.
At that point, Begin accused Peres of lying about Sadat's intentions and, ripping a sheet of paper in half to dramatize his point, declared, "Border changes are not territorial compromise. This means territorial compromise, when you divide land in two."
As the argument unfolded in the Knesset chamber, Begin and Peres were drowned out by shouting members and the two party leaders left to continue their discussion in the parliament dining room.
The exchange took place just one day after Begin warned his Cabinet against tempestuous outbursts in meetings, telling them: "There will be no more raising of voices at this table or this government will not be worthy of its name."
That warning was precipitated by an incident Monday when Ezer Weizman, the flamboyant defense minister, enroute to a meeting of the ministerial committee for internal security in Begin's office, spotted a familiar blue Israel poster with the single word Shalom (Peace).
Suddenly, according to the account of several officials present, Weizman became enraged tored down the poster and shouted, "What's the sense of such a poster. In this government they don't want peace!"
Sadat's initiative, broken off in January when Egypt's negotiators left Jerusalem in the middle of the night at Sadat's behest, was renewed by Egypt's acceptance of a U.S. invitation to attend a foreign minister's conference at Leeds Castle, in England.
Even before the Leeds conference, the new peace overtures had gained momentum with a controversial meeting on July 9 between Sadat and Peres in Vienna, and a meeting four days later near Salzburg between Sadat and Weizman.
The Sadat-Peres meeting produced the "Vienna paper," a communique that appeared to reflect a slight softening in Egypt's negotiating posture on Arab sovereignty of the West Bank and the Gaaz Strip.
The Sadat-Weizman conference produced a spate of published reports - since denied - that Egypt was willing to make major concessions in the occupied territories, including border modifications and the acceptance of Jewish settlements and some Israeli military presence on the West Bank.
The result of the two meetings - beside temporarily raising peace expectations to new highs - was bitter criticism of both Peres and Weizman.
Peres was called to task for trying to promote his own political ambitions while enhancing Sadat's image as a man of peace, and Weizman was chastised for upstaging Begin and Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, while also playing into the Egyptian president's hands.
The cabinet put its official imprimatur on the criticism of Peres by ruling that exclusive authority to negotiate with Egypt is given to the Begin government. It also decided - in a ruling clearly aimed at Weizman - that future contacts between Egypt and Israel will have to be at a "reciprocal" level of rank.
In effect, the cabinet was saying that it will not tolerate Sadat's attempts to circumvent Begin.
At first blush, it would seem that Sadat succeeded in a clever ploy to polish his own image abroad and at home as the persistent pursuer of peace, while at the same time dividing the Israeli government and once again portraying Begin as an intransigent negotiator with a theological enslavement to the West Bank.
There is also no question that the Egyptian leader also succeeded in creating even more devisiveness in Israel than there normally is.
In last Sunday's closed cabinet meeting, Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, hero of the October 1973 war and a Likud conservative, is said to have so antagonized Weizman that the defense minister accused Sharon and Commerce Minister Yigael Hurvitz of displaying "jealousy and narrow-mindness."
Peres also took a barrage of criticism, with Sharon saying, "That meeting, (in Salzburg) caused Israel great harm. It was inexcusable. No responsible statesman or leader in any other country would have considered, in the midst of difficult negotiations, conducting his own negotiations or negotiations on behalf of his party."
Peres, Sharon said, "is here serving as one of the actors in the general campaign which was, I would say, created to prepare the ground for . . . where Israel will be presented as intransigent and uncompromising."
Even some moderates and liberals in parliament complained that Sadat was toying with Israel's stature in world opinion by first making it seem that Egypt was leaning over backwards to compromise with anybody in Israeli official circles, and then dashing the resulting optimism by refusing to commit himself to concessions and making it seem Israel is to blame.
"He (Sadat) is playing Israel like a guitar, and everything this government does falls right into tune," said one member of parliament.
The rift in the Cabinet deepened, according to government sources, as Dayan became increasingly resentful of the attention given Weizman's Salzburg trip and as the foreign minister more and more came to the conclusion that what Weizman was doing was to attempt to drafta declaration of principles with Sadat.
In a meeting with foreign correspondents, Dayan complained that practical arrangements for a peace treaty should be made at first, and that until Egypt and Israel could agree on such matters as secure borders and territorial sovereignty, there was no point in writing a declaration of principles.
This attitude led a majority of parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee, to critize the foreign minister, saying that a declaration of principles might enable Sadat to conclude a separate agreement with Israel without appearing to betray the Palestinian Arabs.
As for Weizman's view of his meetings with Sadat, most observers here fell that the defense minister feels that he has especially good rapport with Sadat and that, as the only high-ranking Israeli who does, he sould make use of it for the good of the country.
Whether the clash reflects ideological differences more than conflicts of personalties and egos remains a question mark, partly because Weizman has not yet revealed publicly what he learned in Salzberg. It is even questionable whether Weizman came away from Salzburg with anything substantive, despite suggestions by Sadat in an interview with a Jerusalem Post reporter that Egypt might be ready to make significant concessions.
Despite the intensity of the debate over Israel's peace policy, which will be conducted formally next week in parliament, there seems little likelihood for the present that it poses any danger to the Begin government.
Most political surveys show that if new elections were held today, Begin would win by an even greater majority than he did a year ago. Moreover, to topple the government would take a unified vote not only of Labor, but also of the Democratic Movement for Change and the National Religious Party. The Democratic Movement has shown no sign of such unity.
Meanwhile, the Begin government appears to have generated considerable public support for his wariness of Sadat and what Israel is now perceive as Egypt's divide-and-conquer strategy. Moveover, with last Sunday's resolutions, the Cabinet appears to have brought under control such independent foreign policy forays as Peres' Vienna trip.
The Israeli government is now looking forward to a continuation of the Leeds Castle dialogue in El Arish, the principal town in the Sinai. Sadat has asked for such a meeting.
Israeli officials privately are saying that they consider the El Arish conference important because Sadat has set October as one of his peace "deadlines," along with July 23, the anniversary of Egypt's 1953 revolution.