Israel goads Syria with new Golan homes plan

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The Independent Online

A freeze on building on the occupied Golan Heights was officially lifted yesterday by Ehud Barak, Israel's Prime Minister.

Israelis on the Golan greeted the news gleefully and said it opened the way to the building of hundreds of new homes - a move that will bury still further any hope of a resolution to the 50-year-old conflict between Israel and Syria.

The end of the construction freeze is, at least in part, a final attempt by Israel to prod Syria's President Hafez Assad back into peace negotiations, in the faint hope of avoiding the dangerous prospect of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in July - which now seems certain.

But the chances of success are slim. Israel has recently been pressuring Syria by indicating that it has now all but lost the chance of recovering the Golan, which Israel seized in 1967 and has continued to occupy and develop in defiance of UN resolutions.

This week, after meeting President Bill Clinton in Washington, Mr Barak told his parliamentary coalition partners that "the Syrian story is over" and the Israeli media has been full of stories about how the Prime Minister's attention is now switching to the Palestinians. Yet Damascus does not appear to have been moved.

The Syrian state-controlled Al-Baath newspaper declared yesterday that Syria would not give up its claim to the Sea of Galilee, the latest sticking point, even if it meant waiting "years and years".

President Assad wants Israel to withdraw to the borders of 4 June 1967 - the day before the start of the Six Day War. This means Israel must leave the Golan and also return to Syria part of the north-east shoreline of the freshwater sea. Israel has refused to accept the latter requirement, insisting instead on retaining a narrow strip along the shore's edge, which would give it complete control of the lake, one of its main water reservoirs.

"Syria will defend these metres and its water rights with everything at its disposal and is ready to wait years and years for those metres," said Al-Baath, the newspaper of the ruling Baath party, in a front page editorial signed by the editor, Turki Saqer.

Building work on the Golan was frozen by Mr Barak - much to the disgust of the 17,000 Jewish residents of the plateau - when negotiations between Israel and Syria resumed last year after a long break.

News of the end to the freeze was passed to Israeli officials on the occupied Golan, who greeted it with delight.

They see it as an important change of policy as Mr Barak had previously indicated Israel would be willing to leave the heights as part of a peace treaty. The head of the Golan regional council, Yehuda Volman, said he was "very satisfied at the very important decision", and a spokesman for the Golan Residents Committee, which has campaigned across Israel against returning the Golan, was "very happy" - and reeled off the names of three Jewish settlements where work will now begin on homes.

Mr Barak knows that keeping and developing the Golan - at least for now - will win him some much-needed domestic brownie points. But his problems loom as large as ever.

He is irreversibly committed to pulling troops out of Lebanon in July. During his meeting with Mr Clinton, he appears to have won US support for a unilateral pull-out - and a US promise to press Syria to prevent attacks on Israel after the withdrawal. But this is far from a guarantee that the region will avoid being drawn into a wider conflict, ignited by Syria's need to keep Israel in Lebanon - where it can continue to apply pressure over the Golan - and ferocious Israeli retaliation against any guerrilla attacks on its withdrawing troops, or across the border.