WASHINGTON — Secretary of State James A. Baker III scolded Israel on Tuesday for opening a new Jewish settlement on occupied Arab territory in the midst of peace negotiations, saying that the action seemed "provocative" and did not help "create a positive environment" for the talks.
"It's hard for us to see how inaugurating a new settlement now can help the negotiating process that we've just finished launching," Baker told a White House news conference in response to a question about a new settlement on the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau Israel conquered from Syria in 1967.
The Israeli move made it more likely that the Bush Administration and the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir will find themselves in angry disagreement when an Israeli request for U.S. loan guarantees is revived next month.
"I think we've crossed a threshold by getting to bilateral negotiations," Baker said, "and what I think is needed now more than anything else are steps that would create a positive environment for these talks. And steps or actions that are provocative or unilateral--steps that would be seen by one side or the other as provocative, whether they are provocative or not--are hardly likely . . . to build the kind of climate that would serve the cause of peace."
Israeli government hard-liners, led by Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, opened the new settlement at Kela, overlooking the Upper Galilee, in a blaze of publicity Monday only hours after the first direct Israeli-Syrian peace talks adjourned in Madrid. They said that the site would initially house 70 immigrants from the Soviet Union in hastily erected prefabricated houses.
One U.S. official said that the timing, location and even the presence of Soviet Jewish immigrants at the new settlement appeared intended to upset Syria and other Arab countries, which fear that Israel will deliberately settle thousands of Soviet newcomers on territory now peopled by Arabs.
At the Madrid talks, Syrian officials said they would negotiate a peace agreement with Israel only after a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon. Israeli officials said they wanted to talk about peace first and territory later.
The move is also likely to irritate President Bush, who with Baker has asked Israel repeatedly to stop opening new settlements for the sake of the peace efforts--only to watch helplessly as hard-liners in the Shamir government built new villages on the land under negotiation.
"You know our attitude on settlements," Baker said Tuesday. "We've made it very clear."
Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy assured Baker in a letter last year that his government did not intend to settle Soviet immigrants on occupied territory, but Israel has repeatedly broken that pledge.
The issue will take a sharper form when an Israeli government request for $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees to help finance new housing for Soviet immigrants comes up. Congress is scheduled to consider the request in January, but officials said that they expect the debate to begin next month.
The last time Israel requested the loan guarantees, in September, it turned into a bitter quarrel between Washington and Jerusalem. Bush requested a delay while Baker was attempting to set up the Madrid peace talks. Shamir refused, and Bush had to use considerable political muscle to quash the request.
At his news conference, Baker also said he is optimistic that Israel and at least one Arab delegation will agree to a second round of face-to-face talks in two weeks.
The first round of talks was taken up largely with the issue of where and when the second round would occur. The second round should focus on the agenda for a longer series of talks, U.S. officials said.
The two sides have not yet agreed on where to meet, officials said.