Israel offers Assad a Golan sweetener

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The Independent Online
TWO DAYS before the US-Syrian summit in Geneva, a senior Israeli minister signalled that Israel may be ready to abandon Jewish settlements on the Golan Heights in return for a peace deal.

Yossi Beilin, the Deputy Foreign Minister and a leading figure behind the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, described the 33 Jewish settlements on the Golan Heights as 'a mistake' and suggested that, in the future, the settlers will have to decide whether to live under Syrian rule or move back to Israel.

Speaking on state-controlled Israel Radio, Mr Beilin said: 'I would not have set up settlements on the Golan Heights. That was a mistake from the beginning. But now they are there, I believe that if there will be a territorial compromise on the Golan, those settlements that will be under Syrian sovereignty will remain under Syrian sovereignty.

'The Israelis that will live there must decide if it will be any fun to live under Syrian sovereignty or to move back to sovereign Israel. Then the Israeli government will take care of their destiny.'

Mr Beilin's comments were clearly intended as a signal to President Hafez al-Assad, ahead of tomorrow's summit, that elements within the Israeli government are ready to make significant concessions on the road to peace with Syria. Israel is hoping for similar gestures of conciliation from Mr Assad in return.

Mr Beilin's remarks came very close to calling on settlers to move out of their Golan homes, and will outrage the settlement movement. Until now the government has been careful not to suggest that settlements be evacuated, for fear of a right-wing backlash.

While Mr Beilin's comments do not reflect the thinking of Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, his views are increasingly setting the tone of the peace talks, and his influence is steadily growing.

Faltering progress in the Israeli-Palestinian talks has caused Israel to focus on the Syrian negotiations. However, Jerusalem was yesterday playing down the chances of any important breakthrough.

The danger of delaying implementation of the Gaza-Jericho accords was again highlighted yesterday as clashes added to the death toll. According to the Israeli army, troops killed four Palestinian militants in the West Bank town of Hebron after a military operation against Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement. Outside the main checkpoint of the Gaza Strip a Palestinian stabbed to death an Israeli civilian and wounded another before being shot dead by Israeli military administrators.

(Photograph omitted)