Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, making his first visit to the West Bank settlements since just after he was elected in 1977, today said he had fulfilled his promises to build "many" Jewish communities in the occupied territories and pledged to continue the settlement program.
Amid extraordinary security, Begin and three of his Cabinet ministers drove through the West Bank for five hours, visiting four settlements and reassuring their inhabitants that the rightist Likud government will not abandon its commitment to populate the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War with thousands more Jews. Currently, there are about 18,000 Israeli settlers in 72 West Bank settlements.
Although presented as a fact-finding tour for the Cabinet ministers, the trip clearly was to dramatize the campaign issue on which Begin is expected to concentrate most of his attention -- the future status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The opposition Labor Party has committed itself to a platform of territorial compromise with Jordan, offering to yield most of the West Bank in exchange for peace and the right to maintain outposts in the strategic Jordan Valley. While Labor leader Shimon Peres has given no indication that he would dismantle settlements, Begin's Likud coalition already has sought to depict the opposition as betrayers of Jewish settlers.
Although he spoke only infrequently during today's tour, saying little of substance, Begin's itinerary and the places where he chose to be filmed by Israeli television cameras appeared intended to be symbolic of promises made four years ago when he began seeking the support of the ultranationalist Gush Emunim and other settlement groups. Only three foreign newsmen accompanied Begin, whose route was kept a closely guarded secret.
The prime minister visited Keddumim, site of the original Elon Moreh settlement, where in 1977 he made his controversial pledge, "There will be many more Elon Morehs." The statement prompted anxious responses from U.S. officials, who regarded settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace, and from the defeated Labor Party, which had studiously avoided building Israeli outposts in areas of the Samarian hills densely populated by Arabs.
Speaking to Keddumim settlement leaders, Begin referred obliquely to his 1977 pledge, saying, "I have kept my promise to build many settlements," and vowing to continue.
Three Keddumim leaders, criticized the government for not doing enough to settle the West Bank. One of them, Daniella Weiss, invoked Israel's return of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt, saying that "the land of Israel has parts to its body, and one of these is the Sinai. When something goes wrong with one part, then the other parts will be affected."
Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, architect of Israel's aggressive settlement policy, and Interior Ministerr Yosef Burg interrupted, urging the disgruntled settlers to consider the "positive" aspects of the settlement program. For his part, Begin said a "great effort" has been made, and that it will continue.
Begin also visited Jebin Kabir, just east of here, which became the site of Elon Moreh after Arab landowners won a landmark Israeli Supreme Court case against another, nearby, site.
Michal Shouvot, an Elon Moreh settler, stood amidst Israeli flags and a spirited crowd and said, "It looks just like Dizengoff Street, doesn't it?" -- referring to Tel Aviv's busy thoroughfare. Nearby, a settler wearing a yarmulke and with an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder peered through a powerful telescope at the surrounding hillside. He said he was watching for Arabs who might be illegally building houses on land claimed by the settlement.
Begin's motorcade sped over the twisting, narrow roads through the Samarian Hills, led and trailed by several Army command vehicles filled with soldiers and border policemen. Traffic was diverted from the motorcade route, and Army troops were positioned at all possible trouble spots and atop some Arab houses along the way.
As the motorcade entered Nablus, the center of Palestinian nationalist militancy in the West Bank, it speeded up noticeably, approaching 60 mph as it raced through the nearly deserted main street.
Small knots of Arabs stood at some intersections and stared sullenly at the distinctive large American sedan in which Begin rode, but there were no signs of protest. Begin made one stop at the Horns of Samaria, a Biblical landmark and the highest point in the West Bank.
Of the surrounding settlements, Sharon said, "We believe it is very serious -- the most serious answer to the security problems of Israel." Burg said, "Surely there is never enough (settlement), but there is progress." Begin also visited the Karnei Shomron and Ariel settlements.