JERUSALEM -- While his government approves new settlement construction in the West Bank, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has renewed his harsh attacks on settlers, denouncing them as "a burden" on the Israeli army and its fight against radical Palestinian terrorists.
"Settlements add nothing, absolutely nothing, to Israel's security," Mr. Rabin told members of his Labor Party Thursday night. "They are a liability rather than an asset."
In calling settlers "a burden," the prime minister said: "They are making the soldiers' task much more difficult. The soldiers would do far better in combating terror if they didn't have to protect convoys of school buses every day."
Yet when a Labor member asked why he did not tear down the settlements if that is how he feels, especially since they are widely condemned abroad as obstacles to peace, Mr. Rabin replied, "Because we need to reach a final peace settlement first."
His remarks, made public yesterday, were the latest in a stream of often-contradictory official statements on issues related to peace talks with the Palestinians that have left many Israelis perplexed about the course their government is on.
In the process, public support for Mr. Rabin has sharply declined, plummeting faster than ever after the Palestinian suicide bombing this week that killed 20 Israelis, all but one of them young soldiers.
A poll published yesterday in the newspaper Maariv showed that if elections were held now, Mr. Rabin would be crushed -- 50 percent to 28 percent -- by the Likud opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.
The survey, conducted two days after the bombing, no doubt reflects the immediate emotions of traumatized Israelis and does not necessarily signal firm decisions for national elections next year.
While Mr. Rabin describes settlements in withering language -- this was not the first time -- other officials say the government lacks a popular mandate, and probably also a parliamentary majority, to take action against them.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said recently that the government wanted to avoid giving the appearance of yielding to Palestinian pressure on this issue.
Settlers "will not be forced off the land," he said, even if Israel and the PLO extend Palestinian autonomy across the West Bank from its present confines of Gaza and the Jericho district, on the West Bank.