Prime Minister Menachem Begin sharply rebuked critics of Israeli's settlement policy in the occupied West Bank today, charging that they are following "the evil path of the enemies of the Jewish people" and participating in a "campaign of incitement."
Although Begin did not identify the targets of his unusually strong attack, it was clear from the tone of his statement that he was referring to foreign critics - particularly in the United States - who have raised objections to the start last Thursday of a new settlement near the West Bank town of Nablus with approval of Begin's government.
Begin's statement was issued by the government press office as West Bank and Gaza Strip autonomy negotiations resumed in Alexandria, Egypt. It asserted Israel's "absolute" right to build Jewish civilian settlements in "all parts of Eretz Israel, since this is our land, parts of which were conquered [by Arabs] in 1948."
Eretz Israel is the biblical term for the Promised Land stretching from the Nile to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Begin routinely uses it to describe territories outside Israel's 1948 boundaries over which the Jewish state claims sovereignty.
While the substance and tone of Begin's remarks suggested no great departure from his usual theme on settlements, the timing - at the outset of the renewed autonomy talks - generated considerable interest.
Some government sources said it reflected Begin's outrage over the scathing personal attack on the prime minister in the Cairo daily, Al Akhbar, in which Begin was depicted as a "snake." In a front page editorial, Al Akhbar's editor, Moussa Sabri, called on the United States "to cut Begin down to his natural size and lop off the head of the snake before it spews out the venom in its fangs."
Aides to the prime minister suggested that such vitriolic attacks - which are regarded here as semiofficial and done with the tacit approval of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat - are encouraged by U.S. criticism of Israel's settlement policy.
His critics, Begin said, "are not ashamed to employ the term 'provocation.' This is perhaps the most distasteful element of the whole incitement campaign. One recalls when it was asserted that the very presence of Jews was of itself a provocation."
While he did not mention him by name, Begin seemed to include in his statement President Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who said yesterday in a television interview that establishment of the new Elon Moreh settlement near Nablus "exacerbated" Israeli-Arab strains.
Nablus, the West Bank's most populous town, also is the focus of the territory's most fervent Palestinian nationalism. The new settlement is less than a mile from the sprawling Balata Palestinian refugee camp.
Th prime minister also complained about "distortions originating either in cynicism or in ignorance" about Israel's settlement policy. He referred specifically to an editorial in The New York Times which, he said, asserted incorrectly that he promised he would not authorize settlements on expropriated land.
Begin said he had promised Carter at the Camp David peace talks only that he would not authorize new settlements for three months after the initial accords, and not, as the United States maintains, during the negotiations for West Bank autonomy.
"Under no circumstances did I ever agree with the announcements, whatever their origin be, alleging that our settlements are illegal or that they constitute an obstacle to peace," Begin said.