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Sharon Plans to Build 24,000 Units in Territories, Knesset Members Say

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Two opposition Knesset members accused the government Tuesday of circumventing its commitment to Washington not to settle new immigrants in the administered territories.

According to Eli Ben-Menahem of the Labor Party and Charlie Biton, an independent aligned with Labor, the Housing Ministry plans to build new housing in the territories for residents of slum neighborhoods in Israel proper, whose homes would then become available for new immigrants.

The effect would be to increase the Jewish population of the territories, and that could put future peace talks in jeopardy, the Knesset members maintained at a news conference here.

The two charged that Housing Minister Ariel Sharon plans to build 24,000 housing units in the territories and designate them as a rehabilitation project for 90,000 residents of economically depressed neighborhoods.

They showed reporters a set of documents they described as “Ariel Sharon’s black book.”

According to the documents, his ministry plans 10,400 housing units in Ofarim; 1,700 in Alei-Zahav; 2,100 in Avnei-Hefetz; 2,100 in Ariel B; 2,800 in Bruchin; and 1,100 in Revava.

Sharon said the figures were “unfortunately” exaggerated and that the government stands by its pledge not to direct olim to the territories.

The pledge was given to the United States as a condition for receiving U.S. guarantees enabling Israel to obtain $400 million in commercial banks loans at favorable rates to build housing for Soviet immigrants.

The guarantees, released by the State Department Feb. 20 after months of delay, were held up last month after two other opposition Knesset members charged Sharon planned to build 12,000 housing units for immigrants in the West Bank.

DEBATE OVER THE GOLAN HEIGHTS

The Bush administration was furious over the charge by Dedi Zucker of the Citizens Rights Movement and Haim Oron of Mapam. But when the Israeli government flatly denied the charge, Washington put the matter to rest.

The latest accusations were made on the eve of U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s departure for Israel and several Arab countries.

Baker is widely expected to press Israel to resume the peace process, which has been in hiatus since the Persian Gulf crisis erupted last August. But there is broad opposition in Likud to further territorial concessions by Israel.

Knesset Speaker Dov Shilansky of Likud intends to dramatize his rejection of territorial compromise by demonstrative visits to the Golan Heights and West Bank just before Baker arrives in Israel. The move is unusual, insofar as the speaker of the Knesset is barred by custom from publicly speaking out on controversial issues.

The Labor Party also has its hawks. One of them, Knesset member Micha Goldman, charged Tuesday in Ma’ariv that Likud is prepared to trade the Golan Heights for the West Bank.

Goldman, who is close to former Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, charged that Likud leaders “seem ready to promote negotiations with Syria at the expense of the Golan settlements, just as they did in Sinai during the negotiations with Egypt.”

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