Fierce Political Row over Reported Proposal by Finance Minister to Freeze West Bank Settlements

A reported proposal by Finance Minister Yigal Cohen-Orgad to freeze Jewish settlements on the West Bank, strictly for economic reasons, has touched off a fierce political row that could shake and possibly destroy the Likud-led coalition government.

Cohen-Orgad did not deny the reports, though he told furious settler leaders that they were inaccurate. The ultra-nationalist Tehiya Party threatened immediately to quit the coalition if there was “a partial or total freeze” on new settlements in the territory.

Cohen-Orgad is himself a hawk on the settlements issue and is building his own home in the Samaria district. But Israel’s dire economic situation demands major budget cuts. The Treasury announced today that the Finance Minister will present “outline proposals” on the budget when the Cabinet meets in special session this Friday to discuss the economy.

INTENDED TO SPUR CABINET COOPERATION

Informed sources said the report of a possible economic freeze on settlement building was intended to shock the Cabinet into cooperation with Cohen-Orgad in the matter of drastic budget cuts — some 80 billion Shekels ($800 Million) — in all sectors of the economy.

Galei Zahal, the army radio station, reported tonight that Premier Yitzhak Shamir summoned the Finance Minister to his office after the settlement freeze report was broadcast and urged him to stress that no decisions have been made on the matter — only “proposals.”

But the Council of Settlements of the Judaea-Samaria-Gaza regions today branded such proposals as “ideological and political suicide by the government.” Council chairman Yisrael Harel said the Likud government won its mandate on an unrestricted settlement program and its good settlement record. A freeze would be “fooling the public.”

Housing for Jewish settlers is heavily subsidized by the government in the territories and can be obtained much more cheaply than in Israel proper.

The purpose is to induce as many Israeli families as possible to move to the territories, including those without any ideological commitment to settlements. Harel said today that the settlers are prepared to consider some cuts, including lower living standards in existing and new settlements.

However, he vowed that they would fight any kind of freeze. Settlement activists were out in force today, lobbying coalition Knesset members on the issue.

‘A TURNING POINT’ ON SETTLEMENTS ISSUE

But the tide of public opinion may be turning against the advocates of massive, unrestricted Jewish settlements. According to a public opinion poll taken by the Pori Institute and published in Haaretz today, “a turning point” has been reached on the issue. For the first time a majority of respondents — 48 percent — opposed new settlements against 36 percent who favored them. Pori canvassed 1,200 Israelis all over the country representing a cross-section of the population.

Haaretz noted that only a year ago, 48 percent of those polled favored more settlements and 35 percent were opposed, exactly the reverse of the latest poll results. Two years ago support for new settlements was overwhelming, with 53 percent in favor and under 30 percent opposed. According to the Pori Institute, opposition to new settlements was highest among the better educated and higher income sectors of the population.

COALITION BESET BY OTHER PROTESTS

Meanwhile, the coalition is faced by protests from its various partners on other issues likely to be affected by budget cuts. The National Religious Party said it will not accept the abolition of free high school education introduced six years ago under the stewardship of Education Minister Zevulun Hammer, an NRP leader.

Tami, which claims to speak for large, low income families, mainly in the Sephardic community, also denounced cuts in education. It opposes a levy on national health care and has taken the government to task for alleged failure to distribute the tax burden more equitably. Tami has proposed higher taxes for the more affluent sectors of the population.

The Finance Minister is expected to propose a series of specific budget cuts on Friday. These would effect a major sewage scheme near Rishon Lezion; a major road-building project in Tel Aviv which is already under construction; plans for a new railroad line to carry phosphates from the Dead Sea to the port of Eilat; and the controversial Mediterranean-Dead Sea canal, a massive hydroelectric project.

Political observers predict that Cohen-Orgad will have a hard time pushing through his proposals. But he has one important factor on his side, they say. Likud and its coalition partners know that if Cohen-Orgad is forced to resign — he would be the third Likud Finance Minister to do so — the government would surely collapse.

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