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News Brief

May 24, 1991
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In reply to questions, he said Baker had merely “reiterated the longstanding policy of the United States,” so there is nothing “particularly new” in what the secretary said.

But Bush said he understood Baker’s “concern and perhaps frustration” about the Jewish settlements. The issue “has been and will continue to be a difficult problem for us,” Bush said.

“However,” he added, “Israel is moving in some ways that I will not discuss with you, and so I have no reason to be totally pessimistic.”

Baker defended his remarks in an appearance Thursday before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations. But he sought to appear more even-handed.

He said pointing out that Israeli settlements are obstacles to peace does not preclude any other obstacles as being equally obtrusive.

But Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said Baker’s statements Wednesday and Thursday “mean one and the same thing.”

The secretary was raked over the coals by three Republican supporters of Israel: Sens. Alfonse D’Amato of New York, Robert Kasten of Wisconsin and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

D’Amato told Baker his remarks did a “disservice to your efforts” for Middle East peace.

In Jerusalem, Baker’s unusually strong criticism of Israel aroused the ire of right-wing politicians for whom the settlements are an ideological imperative.

Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, regarded as the government official most directly responsible for the accelerated settlement drive, castigated Baker for blaming the settlements, instead of Syrian intransigence, for thwarting his mission.

Sharon claimed the real menace to peace in the region is the Syrian-Lebanese “brotherhood pact” signed Wednesday in Damascus, which, Israelis charge, amounts to the annexation of Lebanon by Syria.

Rehavam Ze’evi, a minister without portfolio who represents the far right-wing Moledet party, also denounced Baker’s remarks.

Geula Cohen of Tehiya defended the settlements as the embodiment of Zionist fulfillment.

But not all Israelis agree. Shimon Peres, leader of the opposition Labor Party, urged a freeze of settlement activity while peace efforts are under way.

He cited as precedent the three-month settlement freeze in effect during the 1978 Camp David talks, when a Likud government, headed by Menachem Begin, was in power in Jerusalem.

In New York, American Jewish organizations from across the political spectrum issued statements criticizing Baker’s remarks. While only some of them actually backed Israel’s settlement policy, all were in agreement that the refusal of the Arab states so far to negotiate with Israel is a much bigger obstacle to Middle East peace.

(JTA correspondent Howard Rosenberg in Washington contributed to this report.)

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