Rabin raises hopes on Golan Heights withdrawal: Israeli PM's proposal for a referendum on draft peace deal with Syria sharply divides public opinion

YITZHAK RABIN, the Israeli Prime Minister, yesterday gave the strongest hint yet that he may consider a total withdrawal from the Golan Heights, telling Israelis to be ready to pay a heavier price than expected for peace with Syria, including the possible uprooting of Israeli settlements.

On Monday, Mr Rabin authorised an announcement that the government would hold a referendum if 'serious' concessions were needed in a future peace treaty with Syria. Yesterday he said: 'If and when we come to a draft peace treaty between Syria and Israel and it demands a painful price - perhaps beyond what the residents of Israel expect - if, and I emphasise, and when, in my opinion it will have to be brought to a referendum.'

He added: 'A significant withdrawal is likely to involve uprooting settlements, and I would like the decision on this to be according to the will of the entire people.'

Israeli reaction to Mr Rabin's referendum announcement yesterday was divided. Some believe the Prime Minister intends to use the referendum proposal to push forward talks with Syria.

Until now Mr Rabin has talked only of withdrawal 'on the Golan'. Convinced now that he may have to make the ultimate concession, some argue that Mr Rabin feels an obligation to seek a new public mandate. At the same time, the Prime Minister knows that he is unlikely to win the parliamentary majority he needs for full withdrawal. An estimated four Labour MPs are likely to vote against such a move, easily removing the government's majority of one.

The sceptics argue that Mr Rabin proposed a referendum to delay the prospects of any agreement with Syria, believing that President Hafez al-Assad is incapable of offering the kind of peace which would make possible an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan. They say the ploy is an excuse to give no further concessions on the extent of withdrawal.

In recent months, several senior government officials have privately acknowledged that full withdrawal is a price Israel will have to pay. And before Sunday's summit, two Israeli ministers backed a full withdrawal in return for full peace.

Despite Israel's low-key assessment of the summit, it is clear US pressure was on Israel to react to the new gestures from President Assad.

The referendum proposal has defused the strong political opposition to a Syrian deal, generated by highly organised Golan settlers. Full public debate about the implications of withdrawal from the Golan Heights can now begin. The Prime Minister is hoping that President Assad, in his turn, will understand that Israel cannot move all the way without public support, which depends, in part, on big concessions from Syria. Public opinion polls are firmly against a total withdrawal, but pollsters point out that this could change if the public perception of Syria should change.

Whether Syria and Israel have moved closer to agreement in recent days will become clear when negotiations begin again next week in Washington. Israel is hoping that its hints of concessions may tempt Mr Assad to set out more fully his offer of peace. Discussion could then start on the pace of any Israeli withdrawal, and the nature of interim security guarantees.

The Syrians, however, have expressed surprise at Israel's qualified response to Syria's stand. 'We're surprised by the contradictory reactions in Israel,' the Syrian Foreign Minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, said in Amman yesterday after briefing Jordan's Crown Prince Hassan. 'We were expecting a big welcome to what was announced in the wake of the summit between the two presidents. Instead of that we are hearing statements on a referendum and demands for more. All of this makes us doubt the real intentions of the Israelis in achieving just peace.'

The PLO's chief negotiator with Israel hailed Syria's planned return to peace talks with Israel as an important step towards a final settlement of the Palestinian issue. 'Now that Syria is back in the negotiations, we should look for a total peace in the area and not fragmented peace,' Nabil Shaath said at the start of a new round of negotiations on the PLO's self-rule deal with Israel.

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