Begin interview: holding the line on settlements, Palestine self-rule

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Israeli Prime Minister Mechachem Begin has delivered an ebullient "yes" to re- starting the Palestinian autonomy talks -- and a jaunty "no" to changing a negotiating position announced before they started a year ago.

New Israeli settlement in the West Bank area apparently will continue unabated also.

In a 75-minute interview June 4, Mr. Begin:

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* Clarified his recent statement that Israel would build only 10 more settlements on the occupied West BAnk of the Jordan River. He indicated dozens more could be added a part a "strengthening" of existing enclaves.

* Detailed what the said was a long history of direct talks with the Kingdom of Jordan. These talks culminated with a meeting between Mr. Begin's foreign minister and Jordan's King Hussein "in a fine city. . . and a fine hotel," the prime minister said. Mr. BEgin indicated this meeting had taken place before the 1978 Camp David accords.

But he added that there was no indication that Jordan, which has boycotted the Camp DAvid process, was changing its mind.

* Said he did not like the word "nonnegotiable," but that Israel's stand on the disputed holy city of Jerusalem, and Israeli opposition to creation of a Palestinian state, were precisely that.

The interview with this correspondent and a group of visiting reporters from the United States revealed a leader who said, smilingly, "Im old" but spoke with the fire, the certainty, and the energy of one much younger.

Mr. Begin's message on autonomy was as straightforward as it semed unencouraging to United States and Egyptian negotiators seeking Israeli concession for the Palestinians.

The Israeli prime minister would be "happy" if Egypt's President Anwar Sadat were to reverse a unilateral May 8 suspension of the Palestine talks.

But Mr. Begin, who has battled all his life fo Jewish control of the Biblical "land of ISrael," has been nothing if not consistent in his determinatin to grant only limited self-rule to the more than 1 million Palestinians in the West BAnk and the occupied Gaza Strip.

He made it abundantly clear June 4 he had no intention of changing his position, and that he saw the negotiating process as an exercise in "convincing our Egyptian and American friends" of that fact.

He did seem to bear out the conviction of Us negotiators that compromise was within reach on the issue of water use on the West Bank, saying Israel was ready to "consult . . . and work together" with an eventual Palestinian council on that question. But there was no indication he would roll back on demands that Israel retain ultimate control of the process.

On the more fundamental issues -- the powers of an eventual Palestinian self-government, and control of security and state land in the occupied territories -- Mr. Begin stood firm.

Before the autonomy talks began, the Begin Cabinet stressed publicly that Israel would insist on control in these areas, and that the Palestinians would be given merely "administrative" authority in concert with the carefully worded Camp David accords. Has that changed?

"No, no, no," said Mr. Begin. "We are not in an eastern souk [street market] . We don't start with a certain statement and [say] perhaps it will cost $1,000 , and then we will be prepared to sell it for $600. . . .

"It's not a legalistic matter. It's a matter of our life.

"Perhaps [Egyptian Foreign Minister] Kamal Hassan Ali will understand when we talk to him again and again," he went on, "that it's not the security of Egypt that is involved, but our security. . . . We didn't give up hope that we will convince. If you suspend the talks, if you don't talk, you can't convince."

Quoting verbatim from the Camp David accords, the Israeli prime minister offered a detailed restatement of his negotiating position. "Everything is negotiate except the destruction of Israel," he insisted. But he placed the Egyptian idea of Arab power-sharing in Jerusalem and pressure for an eventual Palestinian state in that category.

Mr. Begin echoed persistent official leaks in the Israeli media that there had been a long history of meetings with King Hussein. Jokingly referring to the diminutive monarch as "the little king," he went on to say that he hoped Jordan would join Camp David, felt that "one day" this would happen, but said there was no reason to believe that day was near.

Among Israeli leaders who had met King Hussein, the prime minister said, were former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and former Foreign Ministers Yigal Allon and Abba Eban.

Mr. Begin said his own foreign minister had met the King at an undisclosed location "when I became prime minister" and had -- only hypothetically -- bought up proposals from the more moderate previous Israeli government for some form of "territorial compromise" over the West Bank.

But throughout the Israeli-Jordan contacts, King Hussein had insisted on the return of the entire West Bank and the eastern, formerly Jordanian, sector of Jerusalem, Mr. Begin said.

Turning to the controversial question of Jewish settlement on occupied land, Mr. Begin repeated a recent statement that Israel would build only 10 new outposts, and concentrate instead on "strengthening" existing ones.

"You can publish it in your press," he declared, "and I think the Americans in Congress and in the administration will be very glad to hear . . . the problem is finished."

Yet when asked how this affected an October 1978 Israeli plan that foresees construction of more than 55 further settlements in some 20 separate "blocks," Mr. Begin replied:

"It fits in. Believe me.'" He did not elaborate.

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