West Bank settlers prefer continuing conflict to ceding land to Palestinians

April 18, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

RAMAT MAMARE, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- When Secretary of State James A. Baker III returns to Israel today, he can be confident that no formula he might propose for a regional peace conference would satisfy Jewish settlers here.

"Why is everybody looking to solve this problem?" asked an indignant Elyakim Haetzni, one of the founding residents of Ramat Mamare and a member of Israel's parliament. "Perhaps there is no solution. So what?"

Mr. Haetzni is one of many settlers who adamantly prefer a continuation of the simmering war between Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to Israel's giving up control over the land.

They reject a freeze on the establishment of new Jewish settlements or on the expansion of existing ones, warning that such a step would lead to the breakup of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's government. An early end of the government would end any chance of quickly getting negotiations under way.

"We are being sincere in saying there not will be a stoppage of settlements," Mr. Haetzni said. "A stoppage is intended as a symbol of a willingness to withdraw from the land. We don't have the slightest intention, God forbid, to give the Arabs even an inch of territory."

Settlers have been making their views known in advance of Mr. Baker's visit, in ways impossible for Mr. Baker to ignore. They are waging an intentionally provocative campaign to suggest to Mr. Baker that his proposals are unwelcome and to embarrass Mr. Shamir into taking the settlers' side.

As a sign of defiance, settlers moved onto a hilltop Monday to establish a new settlement and dared Mr. Shamir to risk the controversy that would ensue if he stopped them. He took no action, while his ministers disputed whether the government had known the settlers' plans in advance.

Leaders of the settler movement also announced plans for a march today through the West Bank to mark Israel's Independence Day. Military authorities refused to issue a permit for the march, a decision settlers are threatening to ignore.

Their most powerful ally is Ariel Sharon, the minister of housing and Mr. Shamir's longtime challenger within the major rightist bloc, the Likud.

Mr. Sharon has announced plans to build 13,000 housing units in the territories within two years, enough construction to increase the number of settlers to about 150,000 from the current 100,000.

He also has publicized his objections to Mr. Baker's proposals, including the participation of Palestinians.

Mr. Sharon has made it seemingly impossible for Mr. Shamir to satisfy both the Israeli right and the United States. If the prime minister objects to the construction program, he is certain to offend the small, extremist parties that belong to his government. If he allows Mr. Sharon to proceed, Mr. Shamir risks strong criticism from the United States.

Israeli officials say Mr. Shamir and Mr. Baker are likely to discuss at least three issues related to the regional peace conference when the two men meet tomorrow:

* Powers of the regional meeting: Israel wants any conference sponsored by the United States and the Soviet Union to be a one-time, largely ceremonial event, to be followed by direct Israeli-Arab talks. Egypt and other Arab states want to keep the conference structure intact and give it power to intervene if other talks become deadlocked.

* A role for the United Nations: Syria, according to U.S. officials, demands that the United Nations be given a formal role, rather than leaving sponsorship to Washington and Moscow. Israel, opposed to a full "international" conference, rejects U.N. participation.

* Palestinian representation: No other issue is as divisive. Israel wants Palestinian delegates to declare their independence from the Palestine Liberation Organization and refrain from having any contact with it. Palestinians reject those demands, while Arab states are said to take a position in between -- suggesting that the Palestinians simply refrain from saying they represent the PLO.

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