JERUSALEM (Mar. 7)
Defense Minister Ezer Weizman told Premier Menachem Begin by telephone from New York yesterday that he would return to Israel immediately and resign if his orders halting land development work at two Gush Emunim settlement sites on the West Bank is overturned, it was reported today by Israel Radio and Haaretz.
Weizman is in the U.S. to discuss Israel’s weapons needs with Administration officials, beginning in Washington tomorrow and is due to join Begin and Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan in their meetings with President Carter next week.
The media did not say what Begin’s reply was to Weizman’s resignation threat. He reportedly telephoned the Premier after hearing that there were plans to resume development work at Beit El and Nabi Saleh, military bases on the West Bank near Ramallah, where Gush Emunim groups have encamped.
Earlier this week, the Defense Ministry barred further house building and land preparation at the sites. It acted, apparently, on the basis of Sunday’s Cabinet decision to retain the status quo with respect to settlement activity in Sinai and on the West Bank. The Defense Ministry appears to have interpreted the decision as a freeze on development work in at least some of the West Bank settlements.
The latest developments brought to the forefront the sharp division within the Cabinet on settlement policy. Weizman, supported by doveish ministers, wants to suspend settlements in the occupied territories as long as the peace process continues. Cabinet hawks, led by Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, insist on continuing the settlement program regardless of political developments.
PETITION CHALLENGES BEGIN’S PEACE PLAN
Begin has sought to play down the differences but is believed to side personally with the hard-liners. His settlement policies and entire peace plan were challenged in a petition signed by about 300 reserve officers and soldiers representing elite units of the army and air force.
The petition called on Begin to “choose the rood to peace” and strengthen their belief in Israel’s sincerity. It warned the Premier against “steps that will be regretted for generations.” The signers declared that security can be achieved only through peace and expressed concern that the government will insist on keeping territories rather than improving the prospects for peace with the Arab states.
The petition is the second of its kind to Begin in recent weeks. Last month, the Premier received a letter from a group of Tel Aviv high school students warning that he would be responsible for shedding their blood if they were killed in another war. Begin’s response was to denounce the students as on unrepresentative minority and lecture them on their patriotic duty. Within a few days, another letter appeared from high school students supporting the government’s policies.
But the soldiers’ petition was phrased in moderate terms. They said they drafted it not as a political group but out of concern for Israel’s image. They assured the Premier that they would follow any orders in case of war but asked him to remember that as citizens of the State their rights are no less than those of the Greater Israel supporters and the Gush Emunim.