Rabin again bars West Bank expansion


JERUSALEM -- Thirty months after he was elected and announced a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said yesterday that he really will do it now.

Mr. Rabin met yesterday with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to try to diffuse Arab anger over the continuing expansion of settlements, anger that threatens to halt the peace process.

Palestinians say the settlement freeze announced by Mr. Rabin in July 1992 has looked more like a spring thaw to them. Under a variety of official exceptions and unofficial land seizures, Jewish settlements have continued to grow and Israeli government property confiscations have accelerated.

Mr. Rabin said yesterday that new settlements will be prohibited, public funds will not be used to expand most existing settlements, and confiscations for new roads will be minimized -- all promises he has made in the past.

Mr. Rabin appeared to back off from his recent implied threats not to abide by Israel's agreement to withdraw troops from populated areas in the West Bank. He said progress should continue "to implement what we are committed to: to bring about [Palestinian] elections, to bring about the transfer of authority."

Mr. Arafat also appeared to be conciliatory in a news conference after their meeting at the entrance to the Gaza Strip.

"We can understand your needs for security," the Palestinian leader said in relation to Israeli demands to halt attacks by Palestinians opposed to reconciliation. "We are doing our best. But at the same time, I have not a magic stick."

Israeli settlers reacted to the tenor of Mr. Rabin's remarks with predictable outrage. The settlers' organization threatened to "bring life in Jerusalem to a standstill" if Mr. Rabin freezes construction, according to Israeli radio.

Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud opposition coalition, accused Mr. Rabin of wanting to give away "the heart of Israel."

The settlers believe they have a biblical right to the land on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, captured by Israel in the 1967 War and held under military occupation since. There are now about 140,000 Jewish settlers among nearly 2.4 million Palestinians in those areas.

Despite the imbalance in population, Palestinians claim the Jewish settlers and Israeli government have taken more than half of the West Bank land, including 36,000 acres seized since the signing of the peace accord in September 1993.

Objective figures are elusive. But the Israeli Housing Ministry recently acknowledged it had approved the construction of more than 5,000 housing units in West Bank settlements in 1994-1995. New figures also showed a 5 percent increase in the settler population within the past year.

Palestinians have launched a series of protests throughout the West Bank. A growing number of Palestinian officials -- with the notable exception of Mr. Arafat -- have called for a halt in the peace negotiations until settlement expansion stops.

Asked yesterday if he was satisfied with Mr. Rabin's promises, Mr. Arafat replied: "Somewhere in between."

"I think we should continue to coordinate between us," he added.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace accord signed in September 1993 calls for the question of Jewish settlement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip to be settled in negotiations within five years.

Palestinians interpreted that as implying there would be no significant increase in settlements during the interim. They were reassured by Mr. Rabin's frequent criticisms of right-wing settlers and of what the premier called "political settlements."

Mr. Rabin was elected in June 1992, promising to pursue peace with Palestinians. He promptly announced a freeze on settlements.

But his "freeze" had many loopholes. Settlement projects already started could continue, he said, effectively granting a blanket amnesty that covered almost 10,000 housing units and that amounted to a nearly 50 percent expansion.

He said the freeze applied only to government spending. Settlers continued an aggressive building program, using their own funds and money raised from Jewish groups in the United States and elsewhere.

The freeze also did not apply to new roads and public lands, and Palestinians have watched their olive groves and farmland being seized for a web of new "bypass" roads serving the Jewish settlers. And most notably, the freeze did not include Arab East Jerusalem, where Israeli officials recently have leaked word they plan to build 30,000 new housing units for Jews.

It remains unclear how much of the current policy will change. Members of the liberal Meretz Party, key coalition partners for Mr. Rabin, met with the prime minister this week and said they were convinced he will close the loopholes.

Meretz ministers said they expect a Cabinet meeting Sunday will adopt rules requiring government approval of all new housing.

"I am sure that after Sunday, there will be a fundamental and radical change in the situation and in the policies of the government," said Yair Tsaban, a Meretz member and the minister of immigration.

But other Cabinet members have said private construction to expand existing settlements still will be permitted. Mr. Rabin has not publicly explained his position.

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