Prime Minister Menachem Begin's ruling Likud coalition and the opposition. Labor alignment have decided, apparently independently, to attempt to remove the issue of the Syrian deployment of ground-to-air missiles in Lebanon from the Israeli election campaign.
Apparently convinced that only Syria would profit from a divisive national debate on the issue, the Likud and the Labor Party say they have decided to restrain their public debate over the central issue of how far Israel should press Syria for removal of the missile batteries from Lebanon, in spite of the best of the campaign for the June 30 parliamentary election.
Both sides have made it clear that while they may be arguing over the handling of the issue, there is wide political agreement that Syria must remove the missiles, but the peripheral issue of Begin's handling of the crisis continues to remain fair game for Labor Party candidates, according to the tacit understanding. Labor's level of "national responsibility" in its commentary on the crisis will continue to be a legitimate campaign topic for the Likud.
In an apparent independent decision to tone down the debate over the missiles themselves, Begin reportedly is considering a Labor Party proposal to step up national security consulations with the opposition to keep it abreast of diplomatic efforts to ease the crisis.
"There is an unwritten law: in a confrontation with a hostile country, the entire nation stands behind the government. We keep our differences of opinion, if any, to ourselves. This is how we acted in all the wars we fought," Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir said on state television last night.
"The Syrian enemy is listening to this countroversy and is encouraged by it. This hardens his stance and increases the threat of war. I appeal to all of us, stop this discussion. Let us unite and any differences of opinion can be discussed among ourselves," Shamir said. In a conciliatory gesture, Shamir said that "in an atmosphere of unity, the government can be approached, can be influenced. That is possible."
The recent public debate over the confrontation with Syria is unprecedented here, although from time to time in the five wars since the founding of the state there has been behind-the-scenes questioning of the wisdom of entering hostilities. For example, when Israel attacked Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula in 1956, differences in Israel's parliament over the strategy were, for the most part, muted, and the world was presented the appearance of an national consensus.
Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, in a press conference just before Shamir's appeal, urged the government to set up an emergency consultative body, including the opposition, so that neither side will be tempted to exploit the crisis for political advantage.
Peres said that despite his frequent criticism of Begin's handling of the crisis, he agrees that Israel cannot tolerate Syrian missiles in Lebanon. He added that while Labor will continue to challenge the Likud's competency, "we will allow it to act in the diplomatic sphere. We will behave responsibily."
He said he was concerned that "for the first time in the country's history, the minimum needed to achieve a national consensus has not been made."
Peres and his running mates have been sharply critical of Begin, who is also defense minister, for ordering the air force to shoot down two Syrian helicopters in central lebanon on April 28, and, when Syria deployed antiaircraft missiles in response, for ordering that the missiles be destroyed by air stikes and then disclosing publicly that the bombing missions were scrubbed because of poor weather. Disclosure of the missions came under especially severe Labor Party attack because, Begin's opponents said, it revealed to the enemy the conditions under which the Israeli Air Force is unwilling to conduct sorties.
Joining the criticism were former army chiefs of staff Haim Bar-Lev and Mordechai Gur, both Labor Party candidates. But, like Peres, both said they agreed that the Syrian missiles pose a threat to Israel's security and will have to be removed.
Even the Peace Now movement, which held an anti-Begin rally Saturday in Tel Aviv related to the crisis, has stressed that the Syrian missiles are intolerable to Israel. "The missiles must be removed, Begin's verbomania must be stopped, Begin must go," declared one Peace Now leaflet.
Whether the moratorium on divisiveness over the missiles can be sustained is a question neither the Likud nor the Labor Party is willing to speculate upon. The Likud Cabinet ministers continue to assail the opposition for "disloyalty and unpatrotic statements" and Labor candidates have not stopped accusing Begin of "crisis mismanagement."
But if the two sides can maintain a semblance of consensus on the crucial demand for the removal of the missile, the rest of the debate, to quote Shamir, could be perceived by Israeli voters as "just so much dust rising from interparty struggles."