Barak to withdraw Golan troops

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The Independent Online
EHUD BARAK, the Israeli prime minister-elect, said yesterday that he intended to withdraw Israeli troops from Lebanon in a year, once talks are resumed with Syria. He added that he would not demand a medal "if I finished with Lebanon in less than half a year, and I won't go to court if it takes a little more than a year".

The Israeli plan, according to a leak in yesterday's press, is to negotiate simultaneously about Lebanon and an end to Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in 1967. The talks would start where they left off when Benjamin Netanyahu won the 1996 election. There are differences, however, over what those negotiations achieved.

Mr Barak, speaking to the daily Yedioth Aharonoth in his first extensive interview since he won the election, also went out of his way to stress his attachment to the West Bank as the ancient home of Jews. He said every time he went to Efrate, a Jewish settlement to the south of Jerusalem, he remembered how Abraham had "watched over his sheep there". He added that if he set up a broad coalition government the other side, presumably the Palestinians, "expects to get less". He also said there were Jewish settlements about which "we will have to make hard decisions".

The Palestinians expect Mr Barak to implement the Wye Plantation memorandum, which was signed with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, last October, but never implemented by Mr Netanyahu.

Its terms include a limited Israeli withdrawal on the West Bank, opening of a free passage between the West Bank and Gaza and a release of prisoners. Mr Arafat will also want to see if Mr Barak stops rapid expansion of the settlements.

But none of these diplomatic moves can be made until Mr Barak forms a government from the 15 parties represented in the new Knesset. His problem is the polarisation between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews, which makes it difficult for him to include Shas, by far the biggest ultra-Orthodox party.

An alternative for Mr Barak is to bring in the right-wing Likud party, which Mr Netan-yahu led to disaster in the election. But this might paralyse his ability to take decisions, because the right will accept only limited territorial concessions in the Golan and on the West Bank.

The new Israeli leader is contemptuous of the claim by Mr Netanyahu that Israel is under threat from the Palestinians.

The former prime minister had claimed that if Mr Barak was to be elected there would soon be a Palestinian state "on the outskirts of Tel Aviv". Mr Barak, on the contrary, said Israel has "the strongest army south of Sevastopol" and that not "every shadow on the wall" is a security threat.

t The European Union envoy to the Middle East, Miguel Angel Moratinos, said Syria was "ready and anxious" to talk peace with Mr Barak in the hope of reaching a lasting settlement in a year. Mr Moratinos spoke after meeting the Syrian Foreign Minister, Farouq al-Shara, in Damascus.