JERUSALEM, JUNE 24 -- Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, one of Israel's strongest advocates of Jewish settlement in the Israeli-occupied territories, today declared that Soviet immigrants to Israel will not be sent by the new right-wing government to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The statement to a meeting here of the Board of Governors of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency appeared intended to satisfy demands by both the Bush administration and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for guarantees from Israel on the settlement of Soviet Jews.
However, Sharon, who is overseeing the government's effort to absorb the immigrants, stopped short of offering a blanket assurance that no Soviet Jews will move to the occupied lands.
"We do not divert and we do not send any Russian immigrants or any Jew who comes from Russia to Samaria, to Judea, to Gaza, because we understand the seriousness of the situation," said Sharon, referring to the occupied lands by their Biblical names. "Our efforts in resettling immigrants are directed at this side of the Green Line," Israel's internationally recognized border.
Sharon, who was a chief strategist of the campaign by right-wing governments to settle Jews in the territories in the late 1970s and early 1980s, said the new government planned to steer the immigrants toward sparsely settled regions inside Israel, including the northern Galilee and southern Negev regions, as well as the corridor from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The government plans a crash program to build 45,000 apartments for immigrants in those areas, he said.
At the same time, Sharon did not rule out the possibility that Soviet immigrants who choose to move to the settlements will be allowed to do so. Nor did he suggest any change in government policies that offer better financial terms to settlers in the territories than to home buyers inside Israel.
The policy on Russian Jews "does not mean that other people cannot settle in any place," Sharon said. "Construction will be continued, in accordance with government policy, in all parts of the land of Israel."
According to official figures, only about 300 of the more than 50,000 Soviet Jews who have arrived in Israel in the last year have moved to the occupied territories, where about 88,000 Jews now live among 1.7 million Palestinians.
Nevertheless, the prospect that Soviet immigration will strengthen Israel's hold on the lands captured in the 1967 Six Day War has prompted an intensive campaign against the migration by the Arab world. It also caused Gorbachev to warn earlier this month that the migration of Soviet Jews to Israel could be curtailed if Israel did not provide guarantees against their settlement in the territories.
Sharon's address to the Jewish Agency, which is responsible for transporting the new immigrants to Israel, came at a moment when Israel's growing troubles in providing for the new arrivals are provoking concern that the immigration wave may soon slack of its own accord.
The influx of immigrants has begun to produce a serious housing crisis around the country and worsened the problem of unemployment, which stands at more than 9 percent. In recent days, homeless Israelis have set up tents outside the parliament in Jerusalem and government offices in other cities to protest soaring rents they say have driven them out of their homes.
Today, a report in the newspaper Yediot Ahronot suggested that immigration was already beginning this month to fall off because Soviet Jews were worried about reports of the growing housing and employment problems. Officials of the Jewish Agency denied the report, but conceded that despite expectations of immigration reaching new heights this summer, this month's immigration figure would not exceed that of May and would be below April's peak figure of 10,500.
Sharon said only about 20,000 empty apartments remained in Israel, while demand for housing would be such that 7,000 new apartments per month would be needed by December. He said the government, which has been slow to stimulate new housing construction so far, would renovate 5,000 empty apartments and import 40,000 pre-fabricated houses to cover the gap.
Sharon, the leader of the hard-line right wing of the ruling Likud Party, said the government had not changed its "strategic view" of the need to settle the occupied territories, but felt that it needed to smooth over the country's deep political differences over settlement so that it could unite around the task of absorbing the immigration wave.
In an apparent bid by the new government to present a united front on the issue, Sharon's statement was backed by the leader of one of the three extreme right-wing parties in the coalition, Tehiya. Science and Energy Minister Yuval Ne'eman, whose party has been one of the most uncompromising advocates of settlements in the territories, told Israel radio that he agreed with the plan not to send immigrants to the areas.
"We understand that the Soviet Union has a problem and we don't want to have a problem," Ne'eman said. "As far as the settling of Judea, Samaria and Gaza is concerned, we will have to deal with it in other ways. We don't have to push the immigrants where Gorbachev doesn't want them to go."