Barak may leave Golan settlers high and dry

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ASHER UZAN, an Israeli maker of iron ornaments, tries to be optimistic about the chances of Syria regaining the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, where he now lives in a spacious house. "I've heard the same thing about an Israeli withdrawal after every election for 20 years, but I'm still here," he says.

His brother-in-law, who does not want to give his name, disagrees. When Mr Uzan leaves the room, he says: "Most people in Israel are ready to leave the Golan. You can see it in the election result. If we reach an agreement with the Syrians we could go very fast."

Mr Uzan admits the results of the election "weren't good for us or the right". The parties committed to holding on to the Golan suffered heavy losses or were wiped out. Ehud Barak,prime minister-elect, is pledged to get an agreement with Syria enabling Israel to withdraw from Lebanon within a year. In return Syria wants back the Golan, a flat plateau which towers over the Sea of Galilee.

Three years ago negotiations on the Golan seemed close to a breakthrough. Israel had agreed to pull out its forces from all except a few small pockets of territory. In dispute remained the future posture of the Israeli and Syrian armies and measures to prevent a surprise attack by either side.

Israel and Syria are both cautious. The Golan, which, aside from the broiling heat, looks like parts of the Scottish highlands, overlooks northern Israel. From its eastern hills it is only two hours in a tank to Damascus, the Syrian capital.

In the next few months, negotiations will resume where they were broken off when Benjamin Netanyahu was elected Israeli prime minister in 1996. The difference today is that Israel is much keener to escape from its unsuccessful guerrilla war with Syrian-backed guerrillas in southern Lebanon. Syria welcomed the election of Mr Barak, but will negotiate over Lebanon and the Golan simultaneously.

None of this is good news for the 17,000 Israeli settlers on the Golan, who started to come here in 1967. They are coy about what happened to the original 100,000 Syrian inhabitants, whose ruined villages, almond trees growing among the broken stone walls, dot the landscape. "We know there were people here with the Syrian soldiers," says Astrid Kampen Hasday with studied vagueness, as if the flight of the Syrian villagers was a prehistoric event.

Ms Hasday, who acts as ex officio foreign minister for Qatzrin, the settler capital, says the settlers have good relations with the 17,000 Syrians who remain, most of whom are Druze Muslims who refuse Israeli citizenship.

The Golan settlers are keen to say they are different from the ideological settlers of the West Bank and Gaza, committed to keeping the land they believe God gave to the Jews. Ms Hasday and her husband lived in a West Bank settlement for two years. She found the atmosphere racist. She had to carry a 9mm pistol: "They said a .22 would not kill with the first bullet." Her Palestinian neighbours were not allowed to add a room to their house so their son could get married, "but the settlers were building everywhere".

Overall the Golan settlers are none too certain that an Israeli withdrawal will happen. Mr Uzan is building an extension to his house. Ms Hasday spends time showing potential settlers around 24 houses being built in her village. Shlomo Elyani, an electrical contractor in Qatzrin, says: "I'm ready to leave if there is a true peace with Syria, not the cold peace we have with Egypt."

There is probably more calculation in the settlers' view of their future than they reveal. They know that the Golan will only be returned to Syria as part of a deal in which Israel also demands security guarantees in Lebanon in order to withdraw its troops. The final dispositions of the Israeli and Syrian armies after a peace agreement was never settled in negotiations three years ago.

At the same time Israeli attitudes are changing on two fronts. Senior Israeli officers have made clear in the past week that they think a withdrawal from Lebanon is possible and should be immediate. In his victory speech Mr Barak repeated his promise to get Israeli troops home.

Ms Hasday is also worried by the election results. She campaigned for The Third Way party, which rejects withdrawal from the Golan. It lost its seats in the Knesset.

As Mr Barak starts talks on forming a coalition government this week he knows the issue of most interest to the electorate is the battle between secular and religious interests. "For people living in the centre of the country we are very far away," says Ms Hasday. "They need to be reminded of us."

This may be difficult. Israeli guides still show pre-1967 Syrian positions overlooking the Sea of Galilee. But any treaty will in effect demilitarise the Golan. In a referendum promised by Mr Barak on a final agreement, desire to get out of Lebanon may outweigh fear of a Syrian return to the Golan.