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Golan settlers square up for poll fight

Israel peace: As Christopher meets Peres, fear of withdrawal from Heights moves to centre-stage

Qazrin, Golan Heights

Israeli settlers in Qazrin, the largest town in the Golan Heights, watched anxiously yesterday as thousands gathered to demonstrate opposition to Israeli withdrawal.

The Golan settlers were hoping to revive the flagging spirit of defiance. Each of the 50,000 demonstrators was to plant a symbolic tree, expressing Israel's determination not to give the Heights, captured in 1967, back to Syria. All were to receive certificates saying they had planted a tree "to honour the homeland in the basalt land of the Golan".

"The spirit of the people has declined since the assassination of Rabin," said Marla Van Meter, spokesperson for the Golan residents. "Before that, people opposed the government, but now the tendency is to rally around it."

It is a critical moment for the 15,000 settlers. As their supporters were gathering, Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, was meeting Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister, in Jerusalem. It was Mr Christopher's 16th visit to the Middle East in three years to try to broker a deal between Israel and Syria. Mr Peres has already said peace means Israel returning the Golan.

Nobody expects any breakthrough before the Israeli elections, now expected to be brought forward from October to May, but if Mr Peres and the Labour government win, then a peace agreement is possible before the end of the year. The future of the Golan will therefore depend on the election, in which the right will try to make withdrawal and peace with Syria the central issue. It can do little else because in the wake of Rabin's assassination, peace with the Palestinians and the Oslo accords are favoured by 59 per cent of Israeli voters.

The Golan settlers and their friends like to emphasise how different they are from Israeli settlers on the West Bank and in Gaza, with their reputation for violence, racism and religious bigotry. Professor Imanuel Noy-Meir, from Hebrew University, in Qazrin to show solidarity with the Golan residents, contrasts them with "a few hundred Jews in Hebron who went there against the national consensus and expect the army to defend them".

He says: "I am not a rightist. I have campaigned for the rights of Arabs in Israel and bedouin in the south. I am in favour of the rights of minorities, of which the Golan settlers are one." Nevertheless, there is no doubt about where the settlers are looking primarily for support. Most of the 620 buses bringing people to the Golan yesterday were hired by parties of the nationalist and religious right.

Also planting his tree was General Rafael Eitan, leader of the second largest right-wing party, Tsomet, who has just dropped his own bid for the premiership. A short, muscular man - he led the less than successful Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 - he said: "The Golan will be the central issue in the election."

He has decided that Tsomet, a secular nationalist party, will form an electoral block with Likud, the main party of the right. The reason is desperation on the right and General Eitan's belief that only if it unites can it prevent a victory by Mr Peres and Labour. In the election for Prime Minister General Eitan would only have siphoned off votes from Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of Likud, who already trails Mr Peres by 16 points in the polls.

The Prime Minister and the Knesset (parliament) will be elected separately this year.

Many Labour party supporters oppose withdrawal. Also at Qazrin yesterday was Avigdor Kahalani, the tank commander who defended the Golan against Syrian attack in 1973, and is now leading a breakaway Labour faction in the Knesset called the Third Way, which rejects giving up the Heights.

Mr Peres has tried to defuse the opposition by promising a referendum on peace with Syria, but the settlers suspect - almost certainly rightly - that the election in May provides their best chance of staying where they are.