The Israeli government announced today that three new Jewish settlements are to be established on the West Bank of the Jordan River. The move is expected to provoke a sharp reaction from the United States and the Arab world.
The government of Prime Minister Menahem Begin's Likud Party emphasized that the new settlements had been approved by the previous Labor government. But the timing of the decision to go ahead now is being interpreted here as yet another signal to the Arabs and Americans that Israel intends to retain and consolidate its control of the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
It is the third major announcement about the West Bank since Begin's trip to Washington last month, and like the others could be expected to arouse Arab opposition and to stymie possible renewal of Geneva talks on the Middle East.
Earlier this month the Begin government announced that three established Jewish settlements of the West Bank, considered by the previous government to be illegal, would henceforth be considered legal.
Sunday, the Cabinet announced that services in the West Bank and Gaza would be improved to make them equal to services provided for Israeli citizens.
The government has described this action as purely "humanitarian," but it has been widely interpreted as a move toward greater Israeli involvement in the occupied territories - possibly to set the stage for eventual annexation.
The initial U.S. reaction to the Israeli move was a surprisingly mild announcement by State Department spokesman Hodding Carter that complete details were being sought through diplomatic channels, and that Samuel Lewis, U.S. ambassador to Israel, has been instructed to "restate" Washington's views to Begin, Washington Post staff writer Don Oberdorfer reported. The U.S. restraint contrasted sharply with the strong public objections raised by President Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance three weeks ago when Israel gave legal status to the three existing settlements.
[U.S. sources indicated that when additional facts are in, Washington may have more to say about the newly approved settlements.]
The United States has consistently opposed new Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. President Carter specifically asked Begin during White House talks last month to refrain from establishing new settlements while Arab-Israeli peace efforts are under way, and Carter said publicly that any new settlements would be a matter of "deep concern."
[Palestinian sources reacted angrily to Israel's lastest decision, calling it further evidence of plans for the territory's outright annexation, Reuter reported from Beirut.]
The Cabinet secretary of the former government, Gershon Avner, confirmed in a telephone interview today that the three new settlements were part of a package of 25 new settlements that the previous government had planned on both sides of the pre-1967 border between Israel and Jordan.
But he said that no dates were set and that the previous government had been cautious about setting up settlements on the West Bank in the face of American disapproval or while there was movement toward peace with the Arabs.
He also said that no particular groups had been chosen to settle the areas.
The United States has consistently voiced disapproval of any Jewish settlements in the occupied territories as an obstacle to peace.
All three new settlements are to be within a few miles of the Pre-June 1967 Israeli border.The government said that Tsur Natan B near Qalqilya west of Nablus is to be settled by the leftist Mapam Party's youth movement but the Mapam Party, a member of the opposition Labor Alliance, denied this.
As of tonight the government had not explained the contradictory statements.
Mevo Horon C, north of Latrun on the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road, is to be settled by Begin's ultra-Orthodox right-wing ally, the Poali Agudat Yisrael Party, according to Israel Radio.
The third settlement, on the road between Hebron and Beersheba, is to be settled by another of Begin's political allies - the right-wing Gush Emunim (Faith Bloc), which has long urged full annexation of the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
A spokesman for the Gush Emunim told Israel Radio that he was disappointed that the government had decided to move ahead on only three new settlements when many more had been promised this year.
Political pressure from the far right may be part of the reason Begin is moving now toward consolidating Israel control in the West Bank, for he depends upon right-wing and conservative allies to maintain his slender parlimentary majority. But Begin has consistently said for the last 10 years, ever since Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza, that these territories should remain with Israel in any peace treaty.