The Israeli government this week approved eight new settlements in the occupied West Bank, amid heavily populated Arab areas. One of the settlements is intended to become a new Jewish city directly overlooking the West Bank's largest city of Nablus.
The decision comes as Jordan's King Hussein is about to make his final evaluation of whether to join peace talks with Israel, a move predicated in large part on the condition that Jewish settlements on the West Bank be frozen during negotiations.
The government's decision was made with unusual secrecy on Sunday, presumably to prevent angry American reaction. It came while special United States negotiator Philip C. Habib was in the region for delicate negotiations over Lebanon.
Opposition Labor Party members have charged that the decision is a deliberate attempt to scuttle King Hussein's entry into talks. The King would enter on the basis of President Reagan's Mideast peace proposals, which call for the return of West Bank land in return for peace. The Reagan proposals have been rejected by Israel.
''The government wants to torpedo Jordan's entry into the peace process far more than it wants to settle Judea and Samaria (biblical names for the West Bank),'' charged Labor Knesset member Ya'acov Tsur.
The Israeli government has insisted it will not accede to a settlement freeze before or after King Hussein sits down at the negotiating table.
''Our reply will always be 'we will not freeze settlement for one day,' '' stressed Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir in a recent interview, arguing this would mean the beginning ''of our renouncing of our right to live and exist in Eretz Israel (Israel plus the occupied West Bank).''
However, former Labor Party Foreign Minister Abba Eban told an Israeli audience last week that he, along with Labor leader Shimon Peres and former Premier Yitzhak Rabin, would accept the idea of a temporary settlement freeze during negotiations, such as that entered into by Israel for three months with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.