THE ISRAELI CABINET'S announcement last Sunday that the Begin government will continue to promote settlements in the occupied territories of the Sinai peninsula and the West Bank of the Jordan River is as disappointing to Israel's friends as it must be maddening to her foes. Coming at a time when the much-vaunted Sadat initiative appears to be losing momentum, the cabinet's action has vitiated any lingering hopes of a quick peace settlement while creating even greater obstacles to any future negotiations.
In refusing to change its present settlements policy the Begin government has acted not only to estrange further such hardline Zionist opponents as Syria and the PLO, but to push moderates such as Egypt's President Sadat and Jordan's King Hussein towards the hardliners' position of intransigence. Sadat has made it clear throughout the negotiations that without a change in the settlements policy he could not hope to gain acceptance of a peace agreement either in Egypt or the other Arab nations, and the Begin cabinet's refusal to compromise on this issue can only be seen as a diplomatically insensitive rebuff to the moderate Arab leaders without whose help Israel cannot hope to achieve a just and lasting peace settlement.
The cabinet's action may also have the effect of alienating many of Israel's supporters in America. Continued adherence to the present settlements policy can only serve to substantiate charges that Israel is militaristic and expansionist. In fighting for the settlements Israel may gain not security, but international pariah status, and a loss of the diplomatic and military support without which it cannot at present survive.
Observers in Israel have suggested that the cabinet's decision represents an attempted compromise between the moderates who want to suspend settlement activity and extremists who have called for major new developments. In fact, neither the compromise nor the moderate position is acceptable: unless Israel not only suspends development of new settlements but withdraws from those already established in the Sinai, there is simply no chance of a peace settlement. The refusal of the Begin cabinet and particularly of the right wing of the Begin government's coalition to recognize this fact can only lead to a continued state of tension in the Middle East.
Thus far the Carter administration has, commendably, voiced opposition to the settlements, perhaps in the hope of influencing the outcome of last week's vote. Apparently they failed this time, but one can only hope that the Carter administration, with the full support of the American Jewish community, will use all available diplomatic means to persuade Israel's leaders to come to their senses.