As Baker Arrives in Israel, Settlement Policy is Scrapped

Just hours before U.S. Secretary of State James Baker arrived here Sunday afternoon, Israel’s new Cabinet, in its first weekly meeting, suspended all previous decisions approving settlement building.

It was a marked contrast to previous Baker visits, which were frequently accompanied by the inauguration of new Israeli settlements in the administered territories.

And unlike previous American diplomatic efforts, which substituted for face-to-face talks between Israelis and Arabs over how to proceed with the peace process, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin will head to Egypt on Tuesday to meet with President Hosni Mubarak. There is speculation that Baker will attend that meeting as well.

Not everyone is taking the new Israeli policies well. Security precautions for the Baker visit were especially tight, in light of intelligence reports reaching the police and the Shin Bet security service of a rightist extremist plot to attack Baker or American institutions here during his visit.

Meeting Baker at the airport was Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and top aides. Peres accompanied Baker to Jerusalem, where the secretary opened talks with Rabin.

On Monday, talks were scheduled with Faisal Husseini and other local Palestinian leaders. Also on the agenda were further meetings with Rabin, Peres and the Israeli economic leadership.

The economic team, headed by Finance Minister Avraham Shohat and the governor of the Bank of Israel, Jacob Frankel, will discuss Israel’s longstanding request for U.S.-guaranteed loans and, possibly, Israeli plans for economic restructuring.

FIRST SUMMIT IN SIX YEARS

On Tuesday morning, Baker flies out for a round of visits to the Arab capitals. Rabin is scheduled to leave shortly after Baker for a oneday visit to Egypt.

This will be the first top-level Israeli-Egyptian summit for six years. Mubarak stolidly refused to meet with the former Israeli premier, Yitzhak Shamir, on the grounds that no substantive progress would come out of such a meeting.

The secretary’s talks in Israel were expected to focus on the peace process — Rabin prefers the term “peacemaking” — and also on the loan guarantees.

Baker is expected to want to hear specific details on the new government’s stance on Palestinian autonomy and also on the extent and nature of the settlement freeze that Rabin and his ministers are pledged to institute.

Sunday’s Cabinet decision to overturn the settlement plans of previous governments follows an interim freeze on new building contracts announced by the Housing Ministry last week. The ministry is also investigating the legal ramifications of suspending existing construction contracts.

What is unclear, however, is the extent to which the Bush administration will be prepared to go along with Rabin’s distinction between “political” and “security” settlements.

The Arabs, led by the Palestinians, will be urging Baker to reject this classification and to demand that the freeze cover all territory captured in 1967, including East Jerusalem.

There is media speculation surrounding the possibility of a Rabin-Mubarak-Baker meeting Wednesday morning in Cairo. Observers say this could assist the U.S. administration and specifically the secretary, who is being urged to take a leave of absence from his post in order to help out the flagging Bush presidential campaign.

At the beginning of the Cabinet session, Rabin told his ministers they had a “great opportunity” to implement their electoral pledges. But he stressed it would require close teamwork and coordination.

He insisted that ministers not follow the pattern of instant leaks set by the previous governments, in which no sooner does something take place in the Cabinet room than it is leaked, often by ministers themselves, to reporters.

The Cabinet appointed an eight-member Inner Cabinet, headed by Rabin, and a ministerial committee on privatization, also to be chaired by the premier.

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