Settlements not to be evacuated, Netanyahu says on tour of area

JERUSALEM — With Israel's heartland spread before him to the Mediterranean Sea, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Sunday from a strategic West Bank overlook in Peduel that all Jewish settlements must remain under Israeli control.

"We will not evacuate any settlements," said Netanyahu, who added that all the settlements should remain within security zones to be demarcated in maps being prepared for submission to President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

"There isn't a single settlement that was established by chance or whim," added Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon, one of six other cabinet ministers on the tour who addressed his colleagues as their guide, military expert and strategic mapmaker.

"We began to settle this area in 1967," Sharon went on, as fellow ministers peered at the vista below through military field glasses.

Glancing at the settlements gripping the steep Samarian hills and straddling their crests as Peduel does, Sharon said they form an Israeli demographic continuity along the former armistice line.

The vantage point chosen for Netanyahu and company was the backyard of Ya'acov Fried's spacious home on Peduel's western perimeter. It was part of an afternoon tour whose participants also included Internal Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani, Tourism Minister Moshe Katsav, Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Absorption Minister Yuli Edelstein.

The high-level and heavily protected group was greeted by local residents with placards bearing such slogans as: "Am I Secure in the National Camp?" "You Were Elected to Safeguard the Land of Israel," "Peace Does Not Emanate From Oslo" and "Reciprocity??"

Netanyahu vowed, "We won't go back to being a country that is only 10 kilometers wide. These ridges are essential for our defense."

Pointing at the ancient and picturesque Palestinian Arab village of Deir Balut directly below, Sharon recalled that it was one of the area's springboards for terrorism.

He recalled that in the War of Independence, the entire area was occupied by the Iraqi army and that it was only after the Israeli-Jordanian armistice was negotiated that it was taken over by Jordanian armed forces.

Referring to the need for a security zone parallel to the Jordan River as well, Sharon said its proposed width of 12-1/2 miles was minimal for defense purposes.

"Any American general would expect the requisite operational depth of a single armored division to stretch back [31 miles] and the operational depth of an armored corps to extend [94 miles]," he said. In the latter case, "that would mean deploying our tanks in the Mediterranean Sea."

This analogy was cited as proof that his proposed security zones' depth was "modest."