Sharon Continuing to Challenge Agreements Reached with Baker

Two senior Israeli Cabinet ministers remain sharply at odds over the understandings on the Middle East peace process reached last week with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker.

Foreign Minister David Levy continues to hail the agreements reached with Baker as a triumph for Israeli diplomacy.

But Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, Likud’s most outspoken hard-liner, continues to snipe, hinting darkly that Levy has given away the store.

“All obstacles have been removed,” coordination with the United States is “good,” and Israel is on the road to peace with the Palestinians and the Arab countries, an ebullient Levy assured reporters after Sunday’s Cabinet session.

He claimed most of his fellow ministers agreed with the way he handled the talks with Baker.

But Sharon complained that he and most of his colleagues were kept in the dark about the details. He again demanded to know whether the government had indeed agreed to negotiate with a separate Palestinian delegation.

“The Egyptians are updated, Syria’s (President Hafez) Assad is, and so will the Jordanians. And only we, who will have to bear the consequences, only we do not know,” Sharon said.

He added parenthetically that “judging by the way the negotiations were handled, the consequences will be difficult.”

NO MOVE TO CONVENE CENTRAL COMMITTEE

Levy, without mentioning Sharon by name, ridiculed his charges.

“To hear every Monday and Thursday elements in the government which attack the government as if it had sold the country, as if it were doing things behind the backs of ministers, as if abandoning essential assets. One must put an end to it,” Levy said.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who conducted most of the talks with Baker, has made no real move to quash the internal differences.

But “political sources,” a code name for senior staffers at the Prime Minister’s Office, said Sharon is out of line. He is well aware that the ministers were briefed last Thursday and that all of Israel’s preconditions for entering the political process were met, they said.

Shamir has so far declined a demand by Sharon to convene Likud’s Central Committee to debate the peace policy. Sharon enjoys considerable support in that grassroots party forum.

He is also in a position to throw a monkey-wrench into the process by pressing a massive settlement drive in the administered territories.

The Arab states and the Palestinians are demanding a freeze on settlement activities as a condition for peace talks. And the United States has declared repeatedly that Jewish settlements in the administered territories are an obstacle to peace.

Sharon challenged the American premise in an appearance Sunday on ABC-TV’s “This Week With David Brinkley” program.

The housing minister maintained that Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip help the peace process by giving Israel the necessary security confidence it needs to begin negotiations.

“These settlements or communities give us the feeling of security, and therefore they will only contribute to peace,” Sharon said.

PERES SEES BAKER IN GENEVA

He also claimed the settlements are needed “in order to keep in our hands the most vital terrain for our existence,” the high, controlling hills in the West Bank, to safeguard “our coastal plain, where two-thirds of our population live.”

But Brent Scowcroft, President Bush’s national security adviser, disagreed with Sharon that Israel needs strategic depth to be secure. He recalled that Israel gave up the Sinai to Egypt for a peace treaty.

The Israelis “don’t have strategic depth against the largest force in the Middle East and are quite secure on that border,” Scowcroft said.

He suggested that the same security can be achieved by giving up other land for peace.

In Geneva, meanwhile, Shimon Peres, leader of Israel’s opposition Labor Party, met with Baker on Friday.

In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Peres explained that he was abroad when Baker was in Jerusalem. He said he did not want to give the impression of talking to Baker behind the Shamir government’s back. But he added that he was not really convinced Shamir had the capacity or will to negotiate sincerely.

Peres said the Labor Party is prepared to support whatever kind of conference is agreed to, international or regional.

But he warned that the “two-track” approach — simultaneous separate talks with the Arab states and the Palestinians — poses the danger of linkage. A stalemate could be created if Syria is not willing to give up its claims to the Golan Heights, Peres said.

(Contributing to this report were JTA correspondents David Friedman in Washington and Tamar Levy in Geneva.)

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