Prime Minister Menachem Begin today turned down a request by special U.S. Ambassador Sol Linowitz to freeze new Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip for two months as a gesture to smooth the upcoming negotiations on autonomy for Palestinian Arabs in the territories.
Linowitz presented the request in a series of three meetings with Begin before leaving for Cairo and a round of talks with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Linowitz asked Begin three times to declare a moratorium on settlements until the May 26 target date for completion of the autonomy talks, and Begin rejected the appeal each time, Israeli and American sources said.
The rebuff came just two days before the negotiating teams are scheduled to meet in Alexandria in a final attempt to resolve outstanding issues before Sadat and Begin both go to Washington for separate talks with President Carter.
Israel's position on freezing settlements, coupled with Sunday's Cabinet decision to build two Jewish residence schools in the center of the Arab city of Hebron, is expected to evoke a sharp Egyptian response in Alexandria.
Meanwhile, a general strike to protest the Cabinet's decision to open two Jewish schools in Hebron paralyzed the West Bank and East Jerusalem today, as transportation, schools and virtually all stores were closed.
Hebron Arabs began a silence campaign against Israelis from the nearby Kiryat Arba settlement, but some Arab workers continued to work in industrial plants at the outpost.
In September 1978, Israel agreed to a three-month freeze on settlements following the signing of the Camp David framework for peace, but since then the government has repeatedly reasserted a right to build Jewish civilian outposts anywhere in the occupied territories.
Linowitz today also asked Begin to agree to the formation of an Egyptian-Israeli negotiating subcommittee to discuss Israel's security needs following any agreement on the Palestinian issue. Begin, according to Israeli sources, replied that overall security must remain in Israel's control, but that he is willing to discuss at a later date the issue of internal security in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including police functions and control of terrorism.
These issues, Begin said, could be negotiated only after other basic issues of autonomy have been resolved, such as whether the proposed autonomous council will have legislative powers, as demanded by Egypt, or merely administrative powers, as envisioned by Israel.
Linowitz told reporters before his final meeting with Begin that he had discussed a settlements freeze. In response to a question, he said, "It would be inaccurate to say we have yet resolved the issue."
Just before leaving for Cairo, the chief U.S. autonomy negotiator would not disclose details of his final session with Begin, but sources said the prime minister again rejected the settlements freeze request. For his part, Begin would only say cryptically, "Our position is well known."
When asked about the expected benefits of a settlement freeze, Linowitz replied, "The policy of settlements is an obstacle to the negotiations. Every time a new settlement is created, it causes a flurry of problems and agitation and creates an obstacle to the negotiations. Anything that would help avoid that obstacle would be welcomed."
Linowitz called the Cabinet's Hebron decision "disturbing," and said, "It will not be helpful to the negotiations."
Begin's stand against a settlement freeze coincided with the publication today of a poll by the Public Opinion Research Institute showing that 48 percent of those Israelis surveyed oppose new settlements, compared to 38 percent favoring them. The poll showed 56 percent against Israel's spending money for new outposts and 32 percent favoring it, with the remainder undecided.
Surveys by several polling organizations in recent months have indicated steadily rising opposition to new settlements, a trend attributed in part to Israel's worsening economic situation.
Apart from settlements, the three major unresolved issues in the autonomy talks are the extent of the powers to be given the autonomous council, the extent to Israel's control over security in the West Bank and Gaza and whether the 100,000 Arab residents of East Jerusalem will be permitted to vote in the proposed autonomous council elections.
Former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin dismissed the settlement controversy in an interview today as an "insignificant issue" and said all sides should be concentrating instead on how to effect the five-year transitional period leading to negotiations on the ultimate status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"What's the difference if there are 50 or 51 settlements, or 60 or 61 settlements?" asked Rabin, a Labor Party Knesset (parliament) member. "Public-relations-wise, it may be important to Israel, but the real problem is being ignored."
Defining Egypt's autonomy proposals as unacceptable to a majority of Israelis, Rabin said, "I believe we are nearing a dead-end. Now that we seem unlikely to meet the May 26 date, the thing to do is find a face-saving explanation and start to cope with the real issues."
Geula Cohen, a Knesset member and leader of the rightest Tehvia (Renaissance) Party, said she was more alarmed about Begin's apparent readiness to negotiate the security issue than about the settlement freeze request.
"Settlements, from our point of view, are frozen anyway. Surrendering on security is suicidal. Security is already almost in the hands of the PLO. This is a bad sign for the next concession," Cohen said.