U.S. has long opposed settlements in territories

March 13, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Almost from the time Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, successive U.S. administrations have opposed the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and been frustrated in efforts to stop them.

U.S. opposition to the settlements is rooted in the Fourth Geneva Convention, which bars military occupiers from transferring civilians into occupied territory.

Israel contends that the Geneva Convention does not apply tthe occupied territories but that in any event it follows the humanitarian provisions of the convention.

When the first, security-oriented, settlements emerged under a Labor-led government after the 1967 war, the Johnson administration considered them "highly temporary," former Secretary of State Dean Rusk recalled in a telephone interview last week.

"We didn't look upon them as a permanent fixture," he said. The United States viewed them as "more or less" illegal and "in our own quiet way" urged Israel not to build.

In the Nixon years, the whole question of the West Bank was subordinated to efforts to deal with the Sinai peninsula and peace between Israel and Egypt, according to the top Middle East official of the period, Joseph Sisco.

Still, the United States saw the settlements at the time as obstacles to peace and at times explicitly called them illegal.

During Camp David talks between Israel and Egypt, President Jimmy Carter thought he had a commitment from Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for a prolonged freeze on settlements. All Mr. Begin finally would agree to, however, was a three-month freeze.

"Carter felt betrayed," recalls adviser William Quandt, a historian of the peace process. And when Mr. Begin actually authorized a "thickening" of existing settlements, a furious Mr. Carter wrote to him warning of "the most serious consequences for our relationship." He even put a hold on U.S.-Israeli negotiations on new military aid commitments.

Mr. Begin was unmoved. Mr. Carter's position was further

weakened by the Palestine Liberation Organization's and other Arab states' rejection of Camp David and by Egypt's refusal to make settlements a major issue.

Reversing long-standing policy, Ronald Reagan, overruling some aides, said explicitly that the settlements were not illegal. While Likud's "greater Israel" drive was already well under way, the U.S. shift "certainly encouraged," the policy, Mr. Quandt argues. Indeed, the bulk of settlement expansion occurred during the 1980s.

During a period dominated by a war in Lebanon, repeated failures to enlist Jordan in talks with Israel and, finally, the Iran-contra debacle, "it's fair to say we didn't see any use in spotlighting settlements as a problem," says Richard Murphy, assistant secretary of state for the Near East during the Reagan years. Rather, their rapid growth was used as a club with the Arabs to get them to the peace table.

By the Bush years, settlements became the dominant feature of the Middle East landscape for U.S. policy-makers, as the government of Yitzhak Shamir expanded them to foreclose the possibility of a Palestinian state. On virtually every trip to the region from the spring of 1991 on, Secretary of State James A. Baker III was embarrassed by evidence of new settlements.

Mr. Bush was also the first president who pointedly objected to settlements in mostly Arab East Jerusalem. His administration was the first to note that, since all U.S. aid goes into the same Israeli pot, the United States was indirectly subsidizing the expansion.

Facing down the politically strong pro-Israel lobby, Mr. Bush blocked congressional action on $10 billion in loan guarantees to help Israel accommodate an expected enormous influx of Jews leaving the collapsed Soviet Union.

After the election of Yitzhak Rabin, a relieved Mr. Bush eased up on the pressure, particularly after the new Labor-led government agreed to halt new construction outside greater Jerusalem.

By the height of his re-election campaign in the fall, the loan guarantees were approved. Under the deal, sums spent on new construction would be deducted from each year's installment.

Since Palestinians and Israelis signed a peace accord at the White House in September, the Clinton administration has all but stopped talking about the settlements.

The Declaration of Principles put off negotiations on this and other "final status" issues for two years, and a State Department official says, "It's important that we don't make statements that prejudge or prejudice the outcome of those negotiations."

Asked if settlements were still an "obstacle to peace," State Department spokeswoman Christine Shelly said Friday, "They're a problem and they don't help," but she declined to say whether they are now considered illegal.

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