The crisis deepened between Premier Menachem Begin’s government and the Reagan Administration after the Israeli Cabinet decided yesterday to establish seven new settlements on the West Bank and was promptly condemned in a strongly worded statement issued by the White House.
The decision, by the Cabinet’s Ministerial Settlement Committee, was announced barely four days after President Reagan Urged Israel to freeze new settlements and the expansion of existing ones, in a nationally televised statement of Mideast policy. It was widely interpreted as a slap at Reagan.
The decision on settlements coincided with the release in Jerusalem yesterday of the text of a letter from Begin to Reagan which was sharply critical of the President’s proposals for Palestinian autonomy and reproached the U.S. for failing to consult with Israel before conveying the plan to Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
STATEMENT BY THE WHITE HOUSE
The White House statement, released in Santa Barbara, Calif., where the President was vacationing said: “The United States regards the Israeli announcement as most unwelcome. We cannot understand why at a time when broader participation in the peace process is both critical and possible, Israel has elected to extend a pattern of activity which erodes the confidence of all and most particularly the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza for a just and fairly negotiated outcome to the peace process.”
Secretary of State George Shultz called the Israeli decision “an unwelcome development” that could not advance peace negotiations in the region. Appearing on the CBS-TV “Face the Nation” program yesterday, Shultz stated that a settlement of the Israeli-Arab dispute-must include “a totally demilitarized area” covering all of the West Bank.
But he stressed that the U.S. would not resort to pressure to “maneuver” Israel into peace negotiations on the basis of the Reagan plan. He also denied a reporter’s suggestion that the Administration was attempting to unseat the Begin government in favor of the opposition Labor Party which has expressed willingness to negotiate on the basis of the Reagan plan.
NOT A NEW SETTLEMENT PLAN
Deputy Premier Simcha Ehrlich, chairman of the Ministerial Settlement Committee, insisted in Jerusalem today that the settlement decision was part of a long-range plan adopted long ago by the government and had nothing to do with Reagan’s proposals. Ehrlich said the settlements were not a provocation and that Israel’s settlement policies were not responses to positions taken by American Presidents.
The decision calls for five new settlements in the southern Hebron mountains, one close to the Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem, and another near the Arab town of Jenin in northern Samaria. The government will allocate $18.5 million for their construction The decision is subject to approval by the State Attorney who must determine that the lands on which the settlements are located are State property and not privately owned.
BEGIN’S LETTER TO REAGAN
Begin’s letter to Reagan, addressed “Dear Ron” and signed “Yours Respectfully and Sincerely Menachem” was in reply to Reagan’s letter to the Premier of August 31 in which he outlined his proposals. The letter stated the reasons Israel has rejected those proposals and admonished the President for making them.
“You and I chose for the last two years to call our countries ‘friends and allies,'” Begin wrote. “Such being the case, a friend does not weaken his friend, and an ally does not put his ally in jeopardy. This would be the inevitable consequence were the ‘positions’ transmitted to me on August 31, 1982, to become reality. I believe they won’t…”
Begin reproached the President for his “omission to consult with us prior to forwarding your proposals to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the former an outspoken opponent of the Camp David accords, the latter all complete stranger to and an adversary of these accords…”
Begin’s letter also vehemently protested Reagan’s proposal that the West Bank should be linked to Jordan: “True, you declare that you will not support the creation of a Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza district. But such a state will arise of itself the day Judaea and Samaria are given to Jordanian jurisdiction. Then in no time, we and you will have a Soviet base in the heart of the Middle East. Under no circumstances shall we accept such a possibility ever arising which would endanger our very existence.”
Begin also repeated his contention that the West Bank was part of Israel’s heritage by historical and Divine right.
U.S. REJECTS ISRAEL’S CHARGES
Last Friday, the State Department rejected charges by Israel that Reagan’s proposals for autonomy and the determination of Jerusalem’s status by negotiations had violated a U.S. commitment to consult with Israel on issues dealing with the Mideast peace process.
Department spokesman John Hughes declared, “The U.S. has not violated any of this commitment to Israel.” He said that both Israel and the Arab states were briefed “simultaneously” on Reagan’s proposals before the President’s TV speech last Wednesday night. On the specific issue of consulting Israel, he made these points:
“The President’s initiative came after three years of autonomy negotiations, three recent trips to the Mideast by Secretary (Alexander) Haig and Ambassador (Richard) Fairbanks and numerous bilateral talks between the U.S. and each of the parties involved; secondly, the views presented by the President are positions which have long been part of the public record or which have been discussed by Israel over the course of the three year autonomy negotiation period.
“Thirdly, the President did not call on immediate acceptance of these views, but instead urged a consideration within the context of negotiations based on Camp David.”
Hughes said the U.S. had not received a formal response from Israel or any of the Arab states on the President’s proposals. He maintained that the Israeli Cabinet communique the previous day rejecting the proposals was not a formal response. The U.S. knows, he said, that the countries involved need time for “digestion” of the proposals and there for the U.S. was not concerned by “initial informal” responses such as made by Israel.
U.S. SAYS IT WILL NOT ALTER ITS STAND
Yesterday’s White House statement, which a spokesman described as an “Administration response” rather than a Presidential statement, warned that Israel’s “settlement activities can only raise questions about Israel’s willingness to abide by the promises of UN Resolution 242 that territory will be exchanged for peace.
“The United States will not alter its stand on settlements. We will persist in our efforts to help Israel understand how damaging its settlements are to the peace we are trying to achieve and how seriously we take this issue. The United States is determined to persevere in seeking broader participation in the peace process. The United States position set forth by President Reagan on, September I remains and shall remain unchanged.”
Meanwhile, Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir told a Herut party rally last night that Israel did not need guarantees, demilitarized zones or security arrangements as promised in Reagan’s proposals “because we will remain in Judaea, Samaria and Gaza and can look after ourselves.” He said Israel would not annex the West Bank “as long as the other side honors the Camp David accords.”