Baker Says West Bank Settlements Are the Leading Obstacle to Peace

In an apparent move to intensify criticism of Israeli policies, Secretary of State James Baker charged Wednesday that the growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank is the biggest obstacle to peace in the Middle East.

Although the Bush administration, like the Reagan administration, has repeatedly called the settlements an obstacle to peace, this is the first time a senior U.S. official has described the settlements as the leading stumbling block.

Testifying before the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, Baker said the issue was the first item raised by Arab countries and Palestinian leaders during his four visits to the region between early April and mid-May.

“I don’t think there is any bigger obstacle to peace than the settlement activity that continues not only unabated but at an enhanced pace,” the secretary said.

“And nothing has made my job of trying to find Arab and Palestinian partners for Israel more difficult than being greeted by a new settlement every time I arrive” in Israel, he said.

The Israeli Embassy here had no immediate reaction to the secretary’s remarks.

But in New York, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issued a strong statement, saying its 48 constituent bodies were “shocked and dismayed” at Baker’s remarks.

The conference urged the secretary to “return to his neutral role of peacemaker,” saying that if his “efforts to bring the parties to the negotiating table” are to be successful, they “must be seen as objective and impartial.”

REMARKS ARE ‘PATENTLY UNFAIR’

The conference statement took no position on Israel’s settlement policy. But one Jewish organizational leader was less reticent.

“I hold no grief for the settlements,” said Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress. “They are singularly inappropriate and offensive at a time when the U.S. is working so hard to achieve a breakthrough in the peace process,” he said.

Nevertheless, Siegman said that characterizing the settlements as the biggest obstacle to peace is “patently unfair. Surely the Arab states’ continued refusal to acknowledge Israel’s legitimacy and its very right to exist” is “by far the biggest obstacle.”

On Capitol Hill, a pro-Israel activist criticized Baker for engaging in “public criticism of Israel,” which “few in the pro-Israel community consider constructive.”

“What’s worse is, we don’t see the same anger toward Syria” or criticism “with any punch” directed at any other Arab country, said the activist, who requested anonymity.

Disagreements between Syria and Israel have stymied Baker’s recent efforts to convene a peace conference involving the Arab nations, the Palestinians and Israel.

Syria has demanded that any peace conference be held under U.N. auspices, which Israel opposes. Israel has demanded that such a conference serve as a prelude to direct talks and adjourn once they begin, while Syria wants an ongoing conference.

Baker “seems to get very emotional where differences with Israel come up,” whereas “he expresses in a very dry way his differences with Syria,” the activist pointed out.

He said Baker’s choice of words, which he dismissed as hyperbole, were “no accident.”

SETTLEMENT OF SOVIET JEWS RAISED

In his testimony, Baker said that despite the settlement controversy, both sides are serious about peace.

“If we could get agreement between Israel and Syria on two issues, I think we would be in a position to see direct negotiations begin,” the secretary said.

Baker said that both the Israeli and Arab governments have rejected a deal he proposed in which Israel would suspend new settlement activity and the Arab states would suspend either their economic boycott of Israel or their state of war with it.

Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the subcommittee chairman, said Israel has a special obligation to the United States on the settlement issue, especially when recently arrived Soviet emigres move to the West Bank.

“Israel has an obligation to us and to their own future security not to settle (Soviet emigres) in such a way that it proves either an obstacle to the peace process or proves to be a major embarrassment to you or to anybody trying to jumpstart peace talks,” the congressman told Baker.

In addition, he said, “the Israeli government has an obligation to deal with this resettlement issue in such a way that it makes possible U.S. support for the Soviet refugees.”

Obey was referring to an expected Israeli request after Labor Day for $10 billion in U.S. guarantees for loans, which would be taken out over five years to help resettle Soviet Jews.

But the congressman stopped short of saying that he would try to block such aid, which he said he wants to see Israel receive.

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