Jewish Agency Assembly Told About Israel’s Urgent Housing, Military Needs

The urgent needs for more housing and the maintenance of Israel’s military strength–twin problems related by the vast expenditures that each demands–were the focus of attention at last night’s sessions of the reconstituted Jewish Agency Assembly. They were stressed by speakers at plenary sessions and committee meetings, among them Foreign Minister Abba Eban, Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Gen. Haim Bar Lev, Chief of Staff of Israel’s armed forces. Eban said the maintenance of Israel’s arms balance against the rapidly increasing military might of the Arabs–principally Egypt–has become the most important principle of Israel’s foreign policy “and we ask the nations of the world to help us in this respect.” Dayan, replying to questions at a closed committee meeting, praised the stance of President Nixon who, he said, has stood firm on all undertakings he has given Israel for military support and on the political front. Sapir said that Soviet military assistance to Egypt has reached $2.7 billion. He added, “In order for you to understand how much this burden weighs heavily upon us it is enough to point out that 25 percent of our gross national product is directed toward this (defense) purpose, a proportion greater by almost three times that of the United States which is fighting in Vietnam and four to six times greater than in countries of Western Europe.” Sapir observed that despite the defense burden, Israel must provide 15,000 flats annually if it is to admit 50,000 immigrants a year. “All this represents an annual investment in the neighborhood of $150 million. From an economic viewpoint there is nothing like investment in housing for the creation of inflationary pressures.

“From the viewpoint of absorption, there is no investment that is more important. This again is an example of the fact that we are often forced to live by contradictions,” Sapir said. Joseph Sharon, director general of the Housing Ministry, told a meeting of the Assembly’s housing committee that Israel has 111,000 families in need of adequate housing and to satisfy only half of them would cost $350 million. He said that even if the funds were available it would be difficult to speed up the rate of housing construction because of the shortage of skilled labor. Sharon denied that the government was “turning a blind eye” to the housing needs of young couples with large families. He observed however that his ministry’s budget was based mainly on the housing needs of new immigrants. He asked the committee’s assistance in obtaining new appropriations for non-immigrant housing. Eliezer Shmueli, deputy director of the Education Ministry seemed to imply in remarks to the Assembly’s education committee that lack of proper schooling rather than the housing shortage was responsible for such phenomena as the Black Panthers, Jerusalem slum youths who have been demonstrating against squalid living conditions. Shmueli observed that the Panther movement did not occur in the new development towns. He attributed this largely to “the network of comprehensive schools” set up and funded by the Jewish Agency.

Replying to questions put to him at a closed meeting, Dayan said Israel did not object to a partial agreement with Egypt to reopen the Suez Canal but he saw no need for Israel to pull back from the canal banks in order to restore the waterway to operation. The canal, he said, was Israel’s most effective military line. Dayan, in effect, seemed to disavow by these remarks the proposal said to have originated with him months ago that Israel would be willing to withdraw some distance from the canal’s banks under terms of an interim arrangement with Egypt. Dayan also took a hard line on Sharm el-Sheikh. He said the attack on the Israel-bound Liberian tanker Coral Sea in the Straits of Bab el-Mandab two weeks ago, confirmed once more “the imperative necessity for Israel to hold on to Sharm el-Sheikh.” He said that as long as Israeli forces occupy that strong point, “we need not fear for the situation at Bab el-Mandab.” Sharm el-Sheikh provides Israel with its closest base to the narrow straits between South Yemen and Ethiopia which provide the only channel between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Reviewing the military situation, Gen. Bar Lev said that if fighting was resumed the main objective of Israel’s forces would be to hold the present lines and create such military pressure as to convince Egypt that it could gain nothing by military means. Eban said there was full agreement between Israel and the U.S. on the necessity to maintain the arms balance in the Middle East, although there are some differences of approach. He said there was no reason to assume that the term, “balance of arms” has lost its credibility.

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