Israel defiant on Golan as Barak confronts Clinton

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The Independent Online

Hours before the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, was to meet US President Bill Clinton last night to discuss how to breathe life into the ashes of the Middle East peace talks, Israel sought to force Syria into fresh negotiations by approving 200 new homes on the Golan Heights in defiance of international law.

Declaring efforts to reach an agreement with Damascus to be "pointless", Haim Ramon, a cabinet minister and Barak confidant, announced that building on the Golan - which Israel has occupied for three decades - would continue as long as negotiations were frozen.

By highlighting its decision to approve new homes in Katzrin, the largest Jewish settlement on the Syrian plateau, just before yesterday's White House talks, Israel appeared to be making a new attempt to lure President Assad of Syria to the negotiating table.

If this fails (and there were few grounds for optimism) Mr Barak faces having to carry out his threat unilaterally to withdraw troops from Israel's occupation zone in Lebanon without a deal with Syria, despite warnings that this could ignite a wider conflict.

Unilateral withdrawal will have been discussed last night, along with hand-wringing about the Palestinian-Israel peace negotiations, where key issues - Jewish settlements, the status of Jerusalem, the return of refugees - are no closer to a solution.

The Americans have made little secret of the fact that they would prefer Mr Barak to postpone unilateral withdrawal until a deal is struck. Mr Barak would like US endorsement for the move, despite the risk.

There is little room for manoeuvre. Mr Barak is committed to carrying out his promise to the electorate to withdraw from Lebanon by July. Not to do so would be perilous. His nine-month-old government, built on an unstable parliamentary coalition, has made little progress with its much-vaunted peace mission and is losing credibility and ratings.

At present, Israel's chances of leaving the war zone under an agreement with Syria appear minimal. There were pessimistic noises from Syria yesterday, which accused Israel of trying to scupper detente. The latest Israeli tactic of building Jewish homes in Golan settlements is unlikelyto go down well in Damascus. President Hafez Assad was blamed by the Americans for the failure of last month's Geneva meeting with Bill Clinton, but he has merely stuck to a long-held position. He has consistently made it clear that he will not sign anything, unless he has a guarantee that he will get back all of the Golan Heights. That means an Israeli withdrawal to the borders of 4 June 1967 - the day before the start of the Six-Day War - which Syria sees as its legal right under UN Security Council Resolution 242.

Mr Barak is unlikely to make that commitment, not least because those borders give the Syrians access to a stretch of the north-eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee - source of a third of Israel's fresh water. Israel wants to keep control of a 100m-wide strip along the shore.

Facing an impasse, Israel proposes to pull out of Lebanon without a deal, a move it justifies by flourishing the 22-year-old UN Resolution 425, which calls for Israel's unilateral withdrawal from its northern neighbour's turf. The fact that it has ignored numerous other UN resolutions over the last 30 years has not diminished the air of virtue with which Israel is now brandishing this one.