Barak's opponents muster forces to prevent return of Golan to Syria

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EHUD BARAK will fly to Washington today to resume peace talks with Syria, as his opponents in Israel muster forces for a battle for the hearts and minds of the public.

Although the Israeli Prime Minister enters the talks, which begin tomorrow, in an optimistic mood, he knows that he faces a huge task in selling peace to his electorate, and that his future could be at stake. Israeli opinion is deeply divided over whether to hand over the Golan Heights to Syria.

An indication of the strength of feeling about the plateau, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Six Day war and later annexed, was found yesterday outside the Knesset in Jerusalem. Inside, Mr Barak was making a speech, explaining that he had a duty to the next generation "to act today to ensure there won't be new rows of graves tomorrow". Outside, a crowd of some 7,000 called on the government not to betray them by handing back the land.

Among them was Sarah Gila'ad, a mother of three who moved on to the Golan Heights 17 years ago. "I will never leave of my own free will," she said."This issue is not only about my home, it is also about the security of the country." Astrid Hasday, a campaigner for Golan residents also at the rally, said: "We will strike, demonstrate, and use all our democratic rights to keep the Golan heights. And we are sure we will eventually win."

Mr Barak will enter the peace talks with two senior security veterans at his side - his chief of staff and former Mossad head, Danny Yatom, and Uri Sagut, a former head of military intelligence. By fielding his generals, he is attempting to erase Israeli fears that giving back the Golan Heights will compromise Israel's security. Opposite them will be a Syrian team led by the Foreign Minister, Farouq al-Sharaa. The President, Hafez Assad, is remaining at home.

The hurdles are many. The Israelis, for example, balk at Syria's insistence that they withdraw to the Sea of Galilee; the Syrians are unhappy about Israeli demands to reduce the number of troops around the country's capital, Damascus, from six divisions to two. But if an agreement is reached, then Mr Barak will first put it to the vote in the Knesset and then - if it receives the necessary majority - to a public referendum.

Debates have begun over the referendum's wording, the percentage of votes required for victory, and whether political parties should be allowed to lead the campaigns for and against. Opinion polls suggest that, were it held today, the outcome would be close.

The return of the Golan Heights is an issue of importance to Israelis for many reasons - from security fears, Zionism, and a general aversion to making concessions to an Arab state. "The referendum threatens to wreck friendships and tear apart families," Ha'aretz newspaper predicted yesterday. In the opposition vanguard stands Ariel Sharon, leader of the Likud party. Mr Sharon can expect support from a wide spectrum, ranging from the settlers, to Israelis from the former Soviet Union, who tend to be conservative.

To the consternation of Israel's security services, settlers' leaders on the Golan Heights have forged ties with radical Jewish settlers from the West Bank and Gaza. The streets of Jerusalem have been daubed with graffiti denouncing Mr Barak as a "traitor", and the return of the Golan as "treason" - sentiments which arouse alarm in Israel, where memories are still raw over the assassination of the former Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, by a Jewish extremist in 1995.