JERUSALEM (Jul. 27)
Premier Menachem Begin today strongly defended his government’s decision to legalize three Jewish settlements on the West Bank. He expressed “deep regret” and “deep disappointment” at the rebuke by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance for the action. He rejected Vance’s charge that Israel had acted in violation of international law and the Geneva Convention governing occupied territories.
Begin asserted that the Judaea and Samaria regions were neither occupied nor conquered territory, that Jews had a perfect right to settle there and that the decision of the Ministerial Settlement Committee was no more than a routine action intended to legalize a de facto situation. “No injury of Injustice will be caused to a single Arab family,” Begin said.
The Premier’s defense of his settlement policy took up a large part of his report to the Knesset today on his recently ended mission to Washington. His remarks were followed by a lively debate during which Labor Alignment leader Shimon Peres sharply criticized the government’s lack of flexibility. He warned that by refusing to contemplate any compromise on the West Bank, the quest for a full peace settlement with the Arabs was probably doomed to failure. He suggested that the government seek further interim agreements with individual Arab states instead.
Peres also took issue with Begin’s failure to brief the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee before appearing before the plenum–a deviation from the regular practice preceding a report to the Knesset. He charged that after only 36 days in office, the new government was behaving in a “capricious” manner toward parliament and its duly constituted committees. Begin and other Likud members angrily denied the charge.
But it was apparent that Begin still holds the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee responsible for “leaking” portions of his “peace plan” to the press before it was presented to President Carter.
SEES NO U.S.-ISRAEL SPLIT
The Premier sought to justify and rationalize the grant of legal status to the three West Bank settlements which had been established in defiance of the previous Labor-led government. The settlements are Ofra, Maale Edumim and Elon Moreh, the latter near the military base at Kadum not far from the Arab city of Nablus. Begin also insisted that he had resolved with Carter that their differences over borders, the Palestinians and Jewish settlements. “Will not bring about a split between our countries.”
(In Washington today, Carter told reporters that he backed the State Department’s condemnation of Israel’s action on the settlements. “The statement that the Secretary of State made speaks for me,” Carter said. At the same time, United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim today condemned Israel’s move. He termed it unfortunate and cautioned that Middle East peace talks would be affected. See separate story.)
Begin claimed that Jewish settlements on the West Bank were not illegal because the Knesset had passed an enabling law in June, 1967 permitting the government, by administrative ordinance, to apply Israeli law to any part of the administered territories. So far, that power has been exercised only in East Jerusalem.
Begin claimed that Israel was not an “occupier” in the sense of international law because Jordan, which held the West Bank until 1967, had illegally annexed it in 1949 and had itself violated international law in 1967 by its aggression against Israel. Legal observers pointed out, however, that in the U.S. view, the 1967 enabling act itself contravened international law and the same position was taken by the UN Security Council at the time.
NO HINT OF FUTURE SETTLEMENTS
When MK Shulamit Aloni of the Civil Rights Party interjected from the floor that Israel’s Supreme Court has held that Israeli authorities must observe international law in the administered territories, Begin retorted, “I am not talking about law, I am talking about substance.”
Begin gave no hint as to whether further Jewish settlements were being planned at this time. At a press conference yesterday, Minister of Agriculture Ariel Sharon who heads the Ministerial Settlement Committee, refused to “confirm or deny” that plans for new settlements would be “delayed” following Begin’s visit to Washington. Begin’s report to the Knesset on his American trip was largely a restatement of his remarks when he landed at Ben Gurion Airport Monday morning and his public statements in the U.S.
SAYS LAW OF RETURN WILL BE AMENDED
The Premier was enthusiastic in his praise of Rabbi Alexander Schindler, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. He said that Schindler, a Reform rabbi had acted to unite American Jews behind the new Israeli government.
Begin also reported that he had rejected appeals from the leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism in the U.S. not to amend the Law of Return to bar recognition of conversions by non-Orthodox rabbis. Begin said he was personally and politically committed to the amendment. He said that the two groups would send a delegation to Israel soon to meet with all parties and seek an agreed solution to their grievances.
Peres, in his remarks, accused Begin of deliberately concentrating on the procedures of peace negotiations during his talks in Washington in order to avoid discussion of the substantive issues of peacemaking. He charged that the Premier had preferred short-term political gains at the cost of worsening relations with the U.S. later.
When Likud MKs shouted, “What Labor government positions did the U.S. ever support,” Peres replied that while there had been differences with the previous government, they were narrower. He said that by striving for “political coordination” with Washington; the previous government sometimes succeeded in swaying U.S. policy in a more favorable direction. He said it was a pity that the Premier had not shown the same flexibility on matters of substance that he had on matters of procedure.