WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State James A. Baker III said yesterday that there is no greater obstacle to Arab-Israeli peace than the proliferation of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.
In unusually blunt and personal terms directed at the Israeli government, Mr. Baker said that "nothing has made my job of trying to find Arab and Palestinian partners for Israel more difficult than being greeted by a new settlement every time I arrive."
"It substantially weakens our hand in trying to bring about a peace process and creates quite a predicament," he said.
At the same time, he expressed doubt that Israel would change its settlement policy until an active peace process got under way.
Testifying before a House appropriations subcommittee, Mr. Baker said that in his current efforts to restart the Arab-Israeli peace process he had broached the idea of getting Israel to halt the settlements in exchange for an end to the Arab nations' state of war with Israel or a suspension of their boycott of Israel and firms that trade with the Jewish state.
"I haven't gotten any takers," he said.
Mr. Baker, whose four recent visits to Jerusalem have been met by announcements of new settlements, made his comments in response to a question by Representative David R. Obey, D-Wis., a harsh critic of the settlements policy who chairs the foreign operations subcommittee.
Mr. Obey cited a State Department report that there were now 200,000 Jewish settlers in about 20 sites in the occupied territories and that settlements were growing at a rate of 10 percent a year at a cost last year of $83 million. He also cited subsequent news accounts of recent Israeli seizure of Arab farmland in the territories.
Mr. Baker said he had been told that Israel had taken over all but 35 percent of the land in the occupied territories.
Settlements are the first thing Arab governments and Palestinians -- "whose situation is really quite desperate" -- raise with Americans, he said.
"I don't think that there is any bigger obstacle to peace than the settlement activity that continues not only unabated [but] at an enhanced pace."
Speaking more broadly of his efforts to put together a peace conference leading to direct talks between Israel and Arabs, Mr. Baker said the United States favored both United Nations and European Community roles at the conference, as well as allowing it to reconvene.
"A formula ought to be found that is acceptable to all the parties, thatprejudices none and that channels the newfound potential of the U.N. in ways that can be helpful in promoting peace and reconciliation in the area," he said.
He thus adopted the middle ground between Syria, which wants actual U.N. sponsorship and a continuing conference, and Israel, which opposes any U.N. role and wants the conference to be a one-time-only affair.
Whether the United Nations will have a role and whether the conference can reconvene are the only major obstacles in the way of a peace conference, he said.
Mr. Baker said that the parley should be allowed to reconvene, "if all the parties agree," to hear progress reports.
He also defended Saudi Arabia against criticism that its role in the peace process falls below what should be expected from a country saved recently from invasion by the United States.
The Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council has said it will send its secretary-general as an observer if a peace conference occurs.
Mr. Baker denied asking the Saudis to participate, although he said that "we have at one time, I think, contemplated that they might attend the conference, but not participate in the negotiations between Israel and her Arab neighbors."