The New Israeli government of Prime Minister Menahem Begin today overruled a decision of the previous government and recognized the previously illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan as permanent legal entities.
The Israeli government's action was immediately condemned by U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. He told reporters in Washington, "We are deeply disappointed."
Vance said Begin had "made no promises" about the controversial settlements during his talks with President Carter in Washington last week. Vance added, "We have consistently stated and reiterated during our discussions here in Washington that we are of the opinion that the placing of these settlements is contrary to international law and presents an obstacle toward peace.
Begin did not say whether his government, having "legalized" the three settlements, would now accede to Carter's request that it prevent further Israeli settlement of occupied Arab lands pending a Middle East peace conference in Geneva. Under questioning by reporters, Begin denied that any freeze on new settlements is in effect.
He refused to say when and where and such new settlements might be established, however.
The three settlements that were formally recognized today are Kadum, near Nablus in the heart of Samaria; Ofra, near Ramallah, and Maale Adumin, east of Jerusalem on the road to Jericho.
The decision to reverse the policy of the former government of Yitzhak Rabin was made by the Ministerial Committee on Settlements headed by the minister of agriculture, Gen. Ariel Sharon.
It did not dispel suspicions among the advocates of further Israel settlement in the occupied territories that Begin had acceded to Carter's demand for a standstill on settlements as long as the efforts continue to reconvene the Geneva's conference in October.
While they welcomed the decision to give recognition, members of Gush Emunim, the nationalist movement that founded the settlements, believe that it may be just a bone thrown to them in an effort to dissuade them from pressing their demands that the government help set up additional settlements.
The question of settlements in the occupied territories was one of three major issues that faced the prime minister upon his return from his 11-day visit to the United States.
The others are the questions of how Begin's secret peace proposals to Carter were leaked to the press before Carter saw them, and what the real results of Begin's visit to Washington will be.
Begin has said that the trip has brought Israel closer to a peace settlement with its Arab neighbors, but the Labor Party opposition argues that the visit only emphasized Israel's political isolation.
The debate on these questions is expected to reach a climax in Parliament on Wednesday, when the prime minister reports on his trip.
The criticism by the opposition, in which the center party, the Democratic Movement for Change, may join, is not expected to endanger the Begin government. Yet, coming so soon after Begin's visit to Washington, which has been described by his supporters as "triumphant," it may lessen the jubilation in Begin's Likud Party over events during the new government's first month in office.
The controversy over the leaked document containing the peace proposals was touched off by Begin himself. Addressing reporters at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport, where he was welcomed home, the prime minister accused the opposition of revealing the contents of the memorandum as soon as it was presented to the Defense and Foreign Relations Committee of Parliament in an executive session, with members pledged to secrecy.
Begin said bitterly that when his party was in opposition, its members never broke their "sacred pledge." He accused the opposition of revealing state secrets "to the listening ears of our Arab enemies." He warned that from now on he may hesitate to report to the parliamentary committee.
Begin's charges drew an immediate response from the leader of the opposition, former Defense Minister Shimon Peres. Armed with clippings, Peres argued that the first stories about the Begin memorandum appeared the morning before the Defense and Foreign Relations Committee was allowed to see the document. The leak came from the government, he said.
Peres said the prime minister is not doing the committee "a favor" when he consults with it, but is fulfilling his parliamentary obligation. He hinted that the Labor opposition might boycott the committee if it thinks the govrnment is withholding information.
The outcome of Begin's Washington visit also came under attack at a meeting of Labor members of Parliament. The criticism was foreshadowed three days ago when former Prime Minister Rabin said that any success Begin had in his talks with Carter resulted from his decision to give up any attempt to coordinate the positions of Israel and the United States at a Geneva peace conference.
"If Israel goes to Geneva 'agreeing to disagree' with the United States on issues like the future borders and the Palestinian entity." Rabin said in a radio interview, "very little except the total isolation of Israel can be expected from the conference."
Begin indirectly noted this criticism in his airport speech when he referred to what he called the "very acrimonious talks" Rabin had with Carter in March. The present government, he said, ended the confrontation with the United States, insured the flow of American arms to Israel and won the support of the American Jewish community.
The timing of today's decision on Kadum and the other two settlements may have been designed to ward off criticism from Gush Emunim over the reluctance of the Begin government to allow new settlements on the West Bank. The decision had been expected, however, in view of the pre-election commitments of Likud and the National Religious Party, the main partners in the present coalition government.
Kadum has been symbol of settlement in the occupied territories in defiance of the government. The 80 families living there moved into the one-time Jordanian army camp "temporarily" in December 1975, saying they wanted to build an urban industrial community. The settlers and about 2,000 of their supporters had previously camped demonstratively near the ruins of ancient Sebastia and agreed to move to the Kadum camp in a compromise worked out by Peres.
Rabin and former Foreign Minister Yigal Allon had viewed Kadum as a serious danger to their authority and had threatened to remove the settlers by force if necessary, but the decision was never carried out, apparently because the Rabin government feared that Begin and his supporters could make too much political hay out of such an action.