Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon is pressing Prime Minister Menahem Begin to quickly establish 24 new Israeli settlements in the northern Sinai before peace talks resume January 16, informed sources said today.
Israeli state radio said Sharon intended to present his plan to the Cabinet Sunday.The proposal was expected to touch off a heated debate, since the future of existing Israeli settlements in the Sinai is already a major domestic political issue and one of the most sensitive points in the Israeli-Egyptian negotiations.
(Egyptian President Anwar Sadat warned in an interview with the Cairo magazine October today that he would "not agree to the presence of a single Israeli settlement on my land" as part of a settlement.)
Despite a strong denial by Israeli Cabinet Secretary Arieh Naor, Israeli state radio repeated as fact several times today that Sharon plans ground-breaking Sunday for four new civilian settlements and 20 military-manned agricultural outposts known as nahals in the strategic Rafiah region of Sinai.
The Rafiah region is on the coastal plain at the south end of the Gaza Strip astride the classical invasion route from the south into modern-day Israel. Other routes through the Sinai are far more difficult for armies to cross.
A number of Cabinet ministers said privately today that they mean to bring the issue to a head at Sunday's Cabinet meeting. Israeli radio quoted one unnamed minister as saying, "The era of ghost towns deciding political borders is over . . . Sharon is behaving childishly."
Informed sources said that the plans for the 20 paramilitary settlements had been devised so rapidly that there is no privision for bringing water to the soldier-farmers who are to man them. Israeli radio said that Sharon will present the Cabinet with a plan to rush the work with prefabricated buildings so that all 24 installations would be in place before the start of the next around of Israeli-Egyptian talks in Jerusalem Jan. 16.
The 24 installations are separate from the eight officially sanctioned ground-clearing operations started earlier this week to expand existing settlements in the Rafiah area. A report of those operations Thursday prompted the U.S. embassy here to seek clarifications from Israel of what it was doing.
A worker for an American voluntary organization who follows developments on the West Bank said today that he has seen new Israeli ground-breaking work at three widely separated points in the Jordan valley over the past few days.
As a military commander, Sharon earned a reputation of being daring and brilliant but impetuous and often insubordinate.
Moshe Dayan, then chief-of-staff, officially reprimanded Sharon for exceeding his orders in the Sinai campaign of 1956. In the 1973 war, Sharon becam ea national hero for reversing the tide of battle in Israeli's favor with a surprise crossing of the Suez Canal, outflanking the Egyptians. But Sharon defied orders not to attack Suez City.
Sharon has apparently been skirmishing privately with other minister over the settlements issue for weeks. Although he has refused to make any public statements, Sharon was paraphrased by Israeli Radio as maintaining that "if widespread settlement does not become a national goal, then a Palestinian state will emerge."
In September, Sharon made a proposal that was rejected by the Cabinet as unrealistic for the settlement of 2 million Jews in the occupied areas by the year 2000. Israeli's total Jewish population today in 3 million.
Sharon's Agriculture Ministry is the government agency responsible for settlements. He also chairs a joint committee of Cabinet ministers and representatives of the World Zionist Organization that plans new settlements.
The newspaper Maariv reported yesterday that Sharon was turned down when he gave the government a proposal earlier this week to go forward with a plan for 25,000 new residential units on the occupied West Bank.
Then plan involved confiscation of Arab-owned land. It was reportedly rejected on the ground that this is not the time, in the midst of peace negotiations, to expropriate from Israeli-recognized private Arab owners.
Foreign minister Dayan has requested that Sharon be named his deputy at the political talks in Jerusalem in an apparent effort to keep him under control, according to Foreign Ministry sources.
A final decision on that is expected at the Sunday Cabinet meeting, but many other Cabinet ministers have privately expressed dismay over the idea. Begin is said to be learning against it although Sharon has been saying privately, informed sources said, that. Begin backs his latest settlement plans.
Israeli Radio said that Sharon would make approval of his Rafiah area plans a condition for joining the peace talks and that he is threatening to take his case to the public if the plans are turned down.
There is growing speculation that Sharon may be forced to resign if he persists on his present course.