A member of the party that withdrew tells how the government got back together.
The fall and subsequent resurrection of Italy's five-party coalition over the Achille Lauro affair requires some explaining.
The political crisis came to a head with the withdrawal of the Republican Party from the government coalition after the decision by Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, taken without prior Cabinet consultations, to free Mohammed Abbas, suspected then as now of having masterminded the seizure of the Italian cruise ship.
Three issues were at stake, issues that, though highlighted by the Achille Lauro saga, have in fact long bedevilled the life of Craxi's government.
The first is collegiality in decision-making. Unity of command is a basic tenet of presidential systems like the American one. In parliamentary regimes such as ours, and especially with coalition governments, a prime minister must consult his allies before making sensitive decisions. And this didn't happen in the Abbas case.
The second is the Italian attitude toward international terrorism. The precipitous liberation of Abbas, and certain aspects, as yet not fully clear, of what happened in Egypt just before and just after the hijackers left the ship, could indicate a weakening of the Italian government's resolve to combat terrorism. Domestic terrorism in Italy was defeated during the 1970s by a display of extraordinary firmness by our various governments in refusing to deal with terrorist groups. It was a tough line -- and not always a unanimous one. In these years Craxi's Socialist Party consistently advocated a policy that, if accepted, would have amounted to appeasement of terrorism. The Italian Republican Party had the impression that, in his handling of the Achille Lauro affair, the Italian prime minister was moving back to a position that it could not accept.
But the third, and by far the most important, issue was foreign policy. Craxi's foreign policy thrust was felt by Republicans as moving progressively away from a Middle East posture in harmony with that of the European Community at large. This position implies a recognition of a PLO role in any settlement of the Palestinian problem, which is conditional upon the explicit acceptance by the PLO of the right of Israel to exist and the consequent abandonment of any further attempts to bring down the state of Israel by violent means. Instead, it was as if an autonomous Italian policy of quasi-recognition of the PLO as a government in exile had emerged, despite the bitter controversy that had already arisen among the government coalition partners following the Arafat-Craxi- Andreotti meeting in Tunis of December 1984.
There were very good motives for the Republicans to insist on a full clarification of the issues raised. Although acting alone, the Republican Party knew that Craxi's policies, the anti-American posture he adopted, the assumption of a Papandreau-style mantle as defender of national sovereignty, would prove to be as unacceptable to the majority of the Italian people as to large sections of the traditionally pro- NATO Christian Democratic Party. And it did.
Craxi's position, moveover, was destined to be highly attractive to the Italian Communist Party. For the first time, Craxi was feted by the Communist Party, which in spite of recent changes in attitudes toward the Soviet Union does still not accept fully the aims of the Western Alliance. We believe that courting the Communist Party on foreign policy grounds established a very dangerous precedent. Craxi's Socialists, after all, have only one third of the votes of the Communists. This too was taken into account by the other coalition partners.
Craxi's manner of handling the crisis itself casts doubts on some of the qualities generally ascribed to him: his capacity for decision-making, the rare bluntness in expression, his desire to assert himself as an effective leader both nationally and internationally. Yet, if Craxi's image derives in substance not from stable policies, but from shifting alliances, then the image itself becomes a potential source of anxiety for the future of the Italian political system.
After lengthy talks, the new policy document signed by Craxi and the five coalition parties significantly corrects the government's position on key issues. We consider this a result of our firmness on the issues at stake. In particular, the document states that Middle East negotiations concern "primarily Israel and Jordan, but also Syria and Egypt, with the PLO fully associated with the process only if it commits itself unconditionally to the path of peaceful negotiation." Craxi's original text included a reference to "the Palestinians' right to self- determination" and called for "the PLO to be associated with negotiations," with no apparent conditions attached to it.
At another key passage, Craxi's draft read that Italy's allies can use NATO bases in Italy "only for ends specific to the Atlantic Alliance as laid down in the agreements." Though highly popular with the Communist Party, this clause was also dropped from the final version of the policy document. A further guarantee of a more balanced foreign policy, than in the recent past, lies in the provision for joint meetings of the five-party coalition at the request of any one of the partners.
Given these safeguards, we felt that our party could re-enter the coalition. But the problems raised by the Abbas affair are not solved for good. In particular, the danger remains that foreign policy could stray once again. But from now on both the Italian and the international public opinion will know with greater certainty if what happens is the result of a united government decision or of unilateral deviations from a signed accord.
What can be expected in terms of future political events? The Christian Democrat Party conference scheduled for the beginning of the new year could provide a much-needed greater clarification on the effective intentions of the senior partner of the present coalition, the only one capable of governing Italy given the present balance of power in Parliament. Elections are not due for another 2 1/2 years. They in the end will show whether, as one leading dissident Communist intellectual put it, patriotism is to be interpreted as being "happy when Italy bares its teeth at the United States, or ashamed at seeing her connive with Middle East terrorism." As Republicans, we are confident that the latter sentiment will prevail.