WASHINGTON (Jul. 28)
President Carter said today that “any move toward making permanent the settlements in the occupied territories or the establishment of new settlements obviously increases the difficulty of an ultimate peace.” But, he added, “It is not an insurmountable problem.”
In a news conference this morning, Carter repeated on earlier statement that “the establishment of new settlements or the recognition of existing settlements to be legal both provide obstacles to peace.” But he said it was an obstacle that “can be overcome” and expressed optimism that a Geneva conference would still be reconvened in the near future.
In what was seen here as a conciliatory gesture toward Israeli Premier Menachem Begin, Carter seemed to play down the importance of this week’s American-Israeli skirmish over Israel’s legalization of three settlements on the West Bank. He said he did not think it is fair to “overly criticize” Begin and cautioned against overemphasizing or exaggerating the significance of recent developments.
NOT PROPER TO CASTIGATE BEGIN
Noting that the question of the settlement was “not a new thing,” the President said “it would not be proper to castigate him (Begin) unnecessarily because he is continuing the policies that have been extant in Israel for a long time.” Carter noted, “He, like myself, has run on campaign commitments and I think he is trying to accommodate the interests of peace as best he can.”
But Carter added: “We feel that any restraint that Prime Minister Begin might want to exert on this subject would certainly be contributory toward peace.” Carter revealed that he had no “prior notice” that Begin intended to legalize the settlements. According to the President, “Mr. Begin did not give any promise about his action on the settlement questions.”
THE ISSUE OF SETTLEMENTS
“I did describe to him our long standing position on the subject. . . and told him that this was a major item of potential differences between Israel and the Arab countries,” Carter said. The President also said he expressed to Begin “my strong hope that nothing would be done by the Israeli government in establishing new settlements that might exacerbate an already difficult position.”
The matter of settlements in the occupied territories “has always been characterized by our government. . . as an illegal action,” Carter said. Admitting that he “did not think about raising the subject” of legalization of settlements with Begin during his trip here last week, Carter said his principal concern “was with the establishment of new settlements and I let him know very strongly that this is a matter that would cause our own government deep concern.”
Carter said he told Begin he thought” establishment of new settlements would be a very difficult thing for public opinion to accept” and “it would be easier to accept an increase in the population of existing settlements than it would be to accept the establishment of new settlements.” Carter said Begin “is in a position now of great strength in Israel” and “his voice would be honored by the Israeli people.”
The President also noted that “the Israeli governments have never claimed that these settlements are permanent. What they have done is to say that they are legal at the present time.”
OPTIMISTIC ABOUT GENEVA
He said he was optimistic about a return to Geneva because all the leaders he has met with have expressed a desire to go there. “What gives me hope it that all national leaders want to go to Geneva,” Carter said. He said that following Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s trip to the Middle East next week, “we’ll have a fuller picture of the differences which still divide the countries.”
Carter said the” major stumbling block” on the read to Geneva remains the problem of Palestinian participation in the conference. Although “our position has been that they ought to be represented,” until the Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist and live in peace, “I see no way that we could advocate participation by them in the peace negotiations.”
Carter voiced a hope “that every leader involved directly in the discussions. . . will join with us in. . . restraining their statements–not being so adamant on the issues and trying to calm down the situation until all can search out common ground.” He said all the parties now had confidence in the U.S. and he was trying to maintain their trust.