Israel says it won't halt settlements WAR IN THE GULF


JERUSALEM -- Stung by the latest U.S. criticism of Jewish settlements, Israel's government renewed its vow yesterday never to surrender the West Bank or Gaza Strip and rejected any freeze on settlement expansion.

An adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir blamed Secretary of State James A. Baker III for falsely encouraging Arab states to believe that Israel might compromise on the issue, while Israel, he said, had no intention of doing so.

"Once the government of Israel accepts any freeze, it violates a very basic part of its policy -- the right of Jews to live on any part of the land west of the River Jordan," said Yossi Ben-Aharon, director-general of the prime minister's office.

Mr. Ben-Aharon said Israel would "never again" give up territory or dismantle settlements as occurred when Israel gave up the last portion of the Sinai Peninsula in 1982 to fulfill the terms of its peace treaty with Egypt.

"That was a very painful experience," Mr. Ben-Aharon said. "Never again."

In testimony Wednesday to Congress, Mr. Baker described the continuation of settlement activity as the biggest obstacle to getting Israel, Arab states and Palestinians to agree to a formula for peace talks. He remarked that nothing made his job more difficult "than being greeted by a new settlement every time I arrive."

President Bush made similar, but softer, comments yesterday. "New settlements do not enhance the prospects for peace," Mr. Bush told reporters. "I have appealed to . . . Israel not to move forward with more settlements. They know it's our policy."

He then added, "However, Israel is moving, in some ways that I will not discuss with you, and so I have no reason to be totally pessimistic. The settlements have been and will continue to be a difficult problem for us."

According to Mr. Ben-Aharon, who participated in many of the discussions, Mr. Baker raised the issue of settlements only "once or twice" in the course of his four visits to Israel since early March. He characterized Mr. Baker's remarks to Congress as "unfortunate."

To deflect the latest U.S. criticism, Israeli officials have tried to focus attention on Syria and on the new treaty formalizing Syria's influence over Lebanon, which was signed Wednesday.

Alarmed by the treaty, Israeli officials have reported what they described as renewed efforts by Syria to acquire ground-to-ground missiles and other advanced weapons and have warned that Syria poses a growing security threat. Officials also are blaming Syrian President Hafez el Assad for the impasse in the efforts to convene peace talks.

President Assad and Lebanese President Elias Hrawi signed a treaty that makes official the control Syria has exercised in recent years over its neighbor's foreign policy and economy, except in the strip of southern Lebanon controlled by Israel.

Under the treaty, Lebanon agreed to give Syria a veto over virtually all significant government actions. Lebanon pledged that its army, diplomats, Cabinet ministers and even the Lebanese press would reflect Syrian policies.

The treaty formally consolidates Syria's gains from Lebanon's 16-year civil war and highlights Israel's losses. For more than a decade Israel and Syria competed for control over the central government in Beirut and backed rival militias that did much of the fighting.

According to Israel, Syria is negotiating for delivery of launchers for 60 to 80 Scud-C missiles purchased earlier this year from North Korea, missiles that have a longer range and carry a larger warhead than those fired against Israel by Iraq in the recent Persian Gulf war.

Yossi Olmert, head of the Government Press Office, said Syria also was negotiating for purchase of Chinese ground-to-ground missiles.

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