Israeli Labor Party leaders are worried that Jewish settlements established in the heart of the occupied West Bank by the present Likud government may scuttle Labor's hopes for territorial compromise with Jordan should Labor come to power in Israel's forthcoming general elections.
West Bank settlers, aware of Labor's dilemma, are now organizing to thwart any return of West Bank land to Jordan and to head off any plans by Labor to dismantle or dry up economic support for controversially located settlements.
"The present [Begin] government and the Labor Party have two different policies on the question of settlement," Labor's shadow foreign minister, Abba Eban, told a group of journalists recently.
As expounded by the eloquent Mr. Eban, Labor Party settlement doctrine does not rule out Jewish enclaves altogether on the West Bank. It is based on two premises: opposition to permanent Israeli rule over 1.2 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, along with the conviction that Israel cannot return to its pre-1967 borders because they are thought to be militarily indefensible.
Labor thus supports Jewish settlements on strips of territory such as the Jordan Valley, the Gush Etzion region south of Jerusalem, and certain areas just outside the pre- 1967 borders, most of which are sparsely populated by Palestinians and which Labor believes must be retained in any peace settlement.
Labor also supports the retention of all Jerusalem, including its post-1967 municipal boundaries that have been extended to include former West Bank land now built up with Jewish suburbs.
But the Labor Party strongly opposes Jewish settlement in heavily populated central West Bank areas. It wishes to negotiate the return of these areas to Jordan as a solution to the Palestinian problem, although Jordan's King Hussein has repeatedly opposed such limited negotiations.
As part of their program to expand existing settlements, the West Bank military government last week declared almost 15,000 dunams (one dunam is 1/4 acre) of land in the Nablus area to be "state lands," some of which is intended for the expansion of a Jewish township. Last week 7,800 dunams in the area of Tubas, a town near Nablus, were declared state land although the Israeli government has not made clear what they intend to use this land for.
Several West Bank settlements have been complaining of acute land shortages but the Israeli government is restricted by a High Court ruling from expropriating private West Bank land for Jewish settlements. To overcome this, the military government has begun a detailed survey of land ownership on the West Bank and, in cases where there is no clear record of ownership, is labeling the area "state land" and assuming title as acting sovereign.
But West Bank villagers claim that such state land is recognized by established custom as farm land for the local population. Since January, the Israeli military government has assigned several thousand dunams of such state land to Jewish settlements in the West Bank and barred Palestinian residents from building around all major roads, Army camps and some settlements.
Mr. Eban charges that Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon "is putting settlements [in populated areas] in order to make it impossible for Labor to carry out our idea of a [Jordanian-Palestinian] state extending on both sides of the Jordan River."
Mr. Eban admits that his party faces a settlement fait accompli should Labor regain office. "I don't think our party knows itself what it would do once it had operative responsibility . . . about realities which exist which we have not created," he said frankly.
Labor Party leaders are wary of talking about dismantling settlements at the start of an already acrimonious election campaign.
Labor Party leader Shimon Peres has been quoted here as denying any intention to dismantle or to economically "dry up" settlements, as suggested by some Labor Party officials. However, Mr. Peres has said Labor would not establish further settlements in heavily populated Arab areas.
But West Bank settlers, who have organized themselves into regional councils and recently set up a council of Jewish settlements in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, are organizing now to prevent any backtracking by a new government.
"We are at the 11th hour," read a recent council bulletin to the press. One of the council's first resolutions, entitled "The Jordanian Option," reads: "The council considers any proposal intended to hand over parts of eretz Israel [ greater Israel] to foreign sovereignty . . . as an illegal act."
The settlers have adopted tactics to protect their interests. Besides pressing the current government to speed up building programs on the West Bank, they are now seeking to win backing from hawkish circles within the Labor party for West Bank settlements such as Ariel, which were founded with Labor Party approval but now fall outside Labor's approved settlement map.
One of the nightmares facing the Labor Party is whether settlers might resist by force if it should become politically necessary to evacuate some of them. The settlers are equipped with weapons and other military equipment and train together in units. In private talks and in publications such as "Point," put out by the settlement counc il, there are broad hints that resistance would be violent.