Prime Minister Menachem Begin's ruling Likud coalition tonight narrowly turned back a vote of no-confidence in the parliament over the signing of an agreement on strategic cooperation between Israel and the United States.
Following six hours of occasionally raucous debate and a cliff-hanging wait for some members who rushed home from abroad to prop up the coalition, the Knesset (parliament) voted 57 to 53, with 2 abstentions, to reject four no-confidence motions submitted by opposition parties.
One of the Likud ministers, Tourism Minister Avraham Sharir, arrived at the Knesset barely an hour before the 11 p.m. balloting, having flown from Sao Paulo to assure a Likud margin. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon rushed back from Washington, where he signed the strategic cooperation accord; Industry Minister Gideon Patt returned from San Jose, Calif.; Communications Minister Mordechai Zippori flew in from Ottawa.
The two abstentions by the Telem Party, formerly headed by Moshe Dayan, gave Begin's Likud two votes more than its normal slim majority of two in the 120-member Knesset. While there were strong partisan undercurrents to the maneuvering that surrounded the introduction of the four motions of no confidence, by parties of both ends of the political spectrum, the strategic accord was bitterly denounced by a long string of speakers who warned that rather than enhance Israel's security, it will place Israel dangerously between two superpowers.
The memorandum of understanding signed Monday in Washington calls for joint cooperation and military assistance between Israel and the United States to cope with threats to the region by the Soviet Union or Soviet-controlled forces.
The no-confidence motions were submitted by the opposition Labor Alignment, the Communist Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, the centrist Shinui Party and the Tehiya (Renaissance) Party, an ultranationalist splinter of the Likud.
Opponents argued that the agreement will unnecessarily exacerbate tensions between Israel and the Soviet Union, and will obligate Israel to participate in military action in support of the United States, without any specific mention of the threat to Israel's security by Arab enemies. Some speakers also complained that the agreement lacks substantive U.S. commitments, such as joint land exercises, stockpiling of equipment and military sales.
Former foreign minister Abba Eban, keynoting the Labor arguments, said that every nation that has signed an accord with the United States has managed to avoid mention of the Soviet Union by name, including signatories to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, because they did not want to provoke tensions.
"It was a principle not to mention a superpower. Does Israel have an interest to deviate from this principle, to say that our deployment is against the Soviet Union?" Eban asked.
Eban stressed that Israel should always seek military assistance from the United States, but he added, "Why does Israel have to oblige itself to help the United States fight against North Korea, especially since there is no United States obligation to help us fight against the Arabs."
Former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, also of Labor, asked if the Soviet Union attacks Saudi Arabia or if "Jeddah is threatened by the Cubans in Ethiopia, does this obligate Israel to defend Crown Prince Fahd?"
Sharon accused the opposition of creating a bogus crisis that could subvert a national consensus on national security.
Sharon said the accord was a response to a "circle of confrontation" that includes rejectionist Arab states and the Soviet Union, and that the two threats should be seen in the same context. He said the accord will also strengthen ties between Israel and the African and Asian nations that fear Soviet expansionism.
Sharon did not even allude to the possibility of a secret annex to the agreement, as he appeared to have done when he said upon his departure from Washington, in remarks to Israeli reporters, "There is an open part and a hidden part."
Sharon did say, however, that the working groups to be named by Israel and the United States will elaborate on the specifics of the accord and determine priorities. Officials of both governments have denied the existence of an unpublished annex.
"It the agreement opens up a range of possibilities for geopolitical cooperation, and changes the essence of the situation . . . . Israel must take all the necessary steps to deter the Soviet Union from threatening Israeli security and its existence, directly or indirectely," Sharon said.