JERUSALEM — Israeli leaders on Tuesday denied that the government has urged Soviet Jews to settle in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, where Palestinians are seeking their own state.
The comments followed protests from the United States, the Soviet Union and Arab leaders, who said that establishing settlements in the territories could hurt the chances for peace.
Yossi Ben-Aharon, head of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's office, said, "Anyone who comes to Israel can go wherever he chooses."
He said that, of a total of 12,000 immigrants last year, only a few hundred chose to live in the territories, which Israel captured from Jordan and Egypt in 1967.
The Soviet Union and the United States criticized Shamir's statement earlier this month suggesting that Israel has to retain the occupied territories to settle its Soviet immigrants.
In Moscow, the Soviet Foreign Ministry on Monday condemned any plan to endanger "Soviet emigres by using them to crowd Palestinians out of their own land" and suggested that such moves could undercut Moscow's plans to further liberalize emigration laws.
Foreign Minister Moshe Arens said that "the Soviet message was not expressed very politely, and we are sorry about it, especially because it is based on misunderstanding over the positions of the Israeli government."
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was quoted by the Jerusalem Post as telling reporters in Washington on Monday that "putting even more settlers into the territories is an obstacle to the cause of peace."
But the U.S. comments have been inadequate, the Arab League's representative in Washington said Tuesday. Ambassador Clovis Maksoud told a news conference that Washington should reassess its policy against settlement of Soviet Jews in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Six left-wing parties have filed no-confidence motions in the Knesset, or Parliament, over Shamir's remarks this month.
Israeli lawmakers and Soviet Jewish activists in Israel have accused Shamir of endangering Jewish immigration at a time of growing concern about anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.
Yitzhak Abrahmson, head of a Soviet immigrants' group, said on Israel Radio that he is worried that Shamir's statement could lead to a Soviet clampdown on exit visas.
Moscow broke diplomatic ties with Israel over the 1967 occupation of the territories. The Soviet Union supports Palestinian demands for an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and says restored ties with Israel hinge on progress in Middle East peace efforts.