Public gives thumbs-down to Rabin's planned Golan deal

As Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin promises that there will be no Israeli withdrawal from any part of the Golan Heights without a referendum, opinion polls indicate that more than half of Israelis oppose a peace agreement with Syria which would include a pullback from the area.

After testing the political waters by hinting that a token Israeli withdrawal might include the evacuation of one settlement, Mr Rabin said that even this will require a referendum.

A poll published in the daily Maariv shows that 56 per cent of Israelis say they would vote no to peace with Syria on the terms Mr Rabin is contemplating; 22 per cent would vote yes, 15 per cent did not know how they would vote and 7 per cent refused to reply.

Supporters of a peace agreement say that in the late 1970s a majority of Israelis were opposed to evacuating Sinai before President Sadat of Egypt visited Jerusalem and Camp David. They say that Israelis will support a withdrawal from the Golan if it is accompanied by an overall peace agreement which would include normalisation of relations and Syria breaking with Iran and Hizbollah in Lebanon.

Since Syria decided to reopen high-level talks in Washington at the end of the month there is a growing feeling among settlers on the Golan that they may face evacuation.

Hundreds of residents have started to examine their right to receive compensation if they have to leave.

Israeli commentators have difficulty in deciding how close Israel is to a deal with Syria because Syrian negotiating tactics are to act tough and not to be intimidated by the prospect of a Likud government winning the next election. Earlier in the week, however, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher said that Syrian President Assad realised that "his best opportunity for an agreement is to do a deal with Rabin".

The prospects of a withdrawal from the Golan may also lead to a split in the Labour party, with the so-called Third Way movement threatening to set up their own party. Opinion polls show that they might win as many as six seats in the 120-seat Knesset. They are proposing a bill which requires a special majority of 70 Knesset members and 50 per cent of voters for a Golan pullout. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has attacked them, saying that no peace can be achieved with Syria without withdrawal from the Golan.

The right-wing Likud also faces a split which may damage it in the 1996 election. David Levy, the Moroccan Jewish leader, complaining that he and his supporters are being marginalised in the party by its leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, is edging towards setting up his own party. He has little support in the Knesset but has the loyalty of many activists. In a closely fought election his defection might give Labour the edge.

Mr Netanyahu, whose vision of the Likud of the future is close to the Republican party in the US, is not trying very hard to keep Mr Levy in the party. He turned up late at a reconciliation meeting with Mr Levy's brother who had already left.The 1996 election is likely to see the Prime Minister and the Knesset elected separately for the first time. Likud and Mr Netanyahu are both well ahead in the polls as they have been since the end of last year when the government's popularity collapsed in the wake of suicide bomb attacks. But there have been no suicide bombs in Israel since January, and Mr Netanyahu may have damaged himself last week by siding with Arab parties in a motion of no confidence against the government.

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