Cabinet Sidesteps Issue of New Legal Status for Settlements

The Cabinet side-stepped the explosive issue of a new legal status for Jewish settlements on the West Bank yesterday by appointing a special ministerial committee to examine the land needs of seven existing settlements and come up with “practical” measures to fill them. The decision angered the settlers who accused the government of reneging on a promise by Premier Menachem Begin to initiate changes in the law.

Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, the leading proponent of massive Jewish settlement on the West Bank, reluctantly accepted chairmanship of the new committee of Begin’s urging. He had vigorously opposed the idea at yesterday’s Cabinet session, arguing that it was a time-wasting play by ministers who are against legal action to change the status quo. The committee is supposed to report back to the full Cabinet in two weeks.

Sharon wasted no time. He convened the committee’s first meeting at 7:30 this morning. But the Cabinet’s decision was seen as a way to head off mounting pressure from ultra-nationalists and religious militants who demand that the government find a legal way to seize Arab-owned land to expand existing settlements and build new ones. The government apparently is reluctant to take up proposals for far-reaching legal action which inevitably would trigger hostile reactions in the U.S. and elsewhere.

SETTLERS EXPRESS DISAPPOINTMENT

Members of the committee of Jewish settlers on the West Bank and Gaza Strip expressed disappointment today. They claimed that the Cabinet’s action came nowhere near the promise they said was made by Begin 10 days ago as a condition for ending a month-long hunger strike by the militants. According to the settlers, Begin pledged that a bill would be submitted to the Knesset that would solve the land shortage. Instead, the Cabinet set up yet another committee in still “another attempt not to decide,” the settlers said.

According to the Cabinet’s decision, the committee will look into the possibilities of “thickening” seven existing settlements in the Judea and Samaria districts by expropriating land for that purpose.

Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir briefed the Cabinet yesterday on the legal and political options available to the government. He dwelt at some length on a proposal by the settlers to apply the Jordanian law of land seizure under which the government may take over private lands for public purposes. At the same time, however, Zamir is understood to have cautioned against that method.

He indicated that it would not be accepted abroad because under international law Israel is regarded as an occupying power and the Jordanian law of “public purposes” is clearly not designed to serve the purposes of the Israeli settlers but those of the local population. Justice Minister Shmuel Tamir, while not ruling out the Jordanian law, warned against its “wholesale application.”

The settlers, meanwhile, are threatening to precipitate a Cabinet crisis unless their demands are met. Yisrael Harel, one of their leaders, said an a television interview yesterday that influential members of the National Religious Party promised that the NRP would quit the coalition government unless the land problem was resolved to their satisfaction.

According to Maariv, such a promise was mode by MK Haim Druckman, an NRP hawk. Druckman said the party’s executive decided that a solution to the land shortage problem would be the basis for the NRP’s continued participation in the government. However, he conceded that this was not an ultimatum. Other NRP leaders denied that there was any party commitment to precipitate a Cabinet crisis.

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