Baker Remarks Draw Ire from Israel and Senators, but Backing from Bush
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Baker Remarks Draw Ire from Israel and Senators, but Backing from Bush

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Israeli officials have responded angrily to U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s sharp criticism of the Jewish state’s settlement policy in the West Bank.

Yossi Ben-Aharon, director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, charged Thursday that Baker has his priorities wrong.

The settlements have nothing to do with the peace process at this time, he said. They will become a factor only once direct negotiations between Israel and the Arab states begin, he said.

But in Washington, President Bush said Thursday afternoon that he was backing the secretary “100 percent.”

“I strongly support what he said, and I strongly support what he is trying to do,” Bush told reporters on the White House driveway.

Baker, appearing Wednesday before the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations in Washington, said he did not think there was “any bigger obstacle to peace” than Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank, which “continues not only unabated but at an enhanced pace.

“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,” Baker said, referring to his recent peace mission to the Middle East.

Although the Bush administration has long stated that settlements in the Israeli-administered territories are an obstacle to peace, this is the first time a senior U.S. official has described the settlements as the leading stumbling block.

Bush addressed the issue in milder terms at a news conference Thursday morning in the White House Rose Garden, stressing it was not the administration’s intention to apply pressure on Israel or anyone.

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