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Rabin ponders Golan withdrawal

Sarah Helm
Tuesday 04 October 1994 00:02 BST

THE Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, is wrestling with the one of the hardest decisions of his political career: should Israel withdraw from the whole of the Golan Heights, paving the way for a full peace treaty with Syria? There is a growing perception that Mr Rabin believes the time has come to make a deal with Damascus.

It is now Israeli public opinion which is the main obstacle to peace. Mr Rabin has promised a referendum - which he would like to hold before the 1996 election - before any deal is done.

Without revealing his negotiating cards, Mr Rabin yesterday stepped up his campaign to sell a deal, in a heated Knesset debate on the future of the Golan, captured by Israel from Syria during the 1967 Arab-Israel war.

At the moment to win a Yes vote for withdrawal seems an uphill task. Opinion polls suggest less than 50 per cent of Israelis would back even a partial withdrawal.

A highly organised opposition is mobilising the fight for hearts and minds. A 19- day hunger strike by Golan activists, which ended last week, attracted widespread support across the political spectrum; about 250,000 people visited the strikers to show solidarity.

In cinemas throughout the country, spontaneous applause breaks out at advertisements, depicting Mr Rabin, pledging not to 'come down' from the strategic plateau, during the 1992 election campaign. For more than a year, cars all over the country have been blazoned with 'Keep the Golan' stickers. Further posters reinforce the message from every billboard, depicting Avigdor Kahalani, the popular war hero, who is leading a break-way opposition group within Mr Rabin's Labour Party.

Mr Kahalani has de- stabilised Mr Rabin's coalition by threatening to push through a Knesset Bill, which would require a majority of 70 votes, in the Knesset, for a Syria peace deal. Mr Rabin has a majority of only 61 and is now engaged in coalition bartering with the religious party, Shas, which he hopes will join his coalition as a bulwark against Mr Kahalani's proposed bill.

Rabin supporters point out that assessing public opinion in the current climate is unfair. As secret negotiations continue, Mr Rabin has not yet been able to balance the 'pain' of the withdrawal with the benefits of peace. Details of future security arrangements on the Golan and the economic and diplomatic benefits of a peace deal are not yet finalised.

Syria is increasingly being held up as a potentially attractive, secular, peace partner - in comparison with Iran, presented everyday in the Israeli media as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism.

The government is also directing public opinion towards the benefits of peace on other Arab fronts, where barriers are slowly coming down. The decision, at the week- end, by the Gulf States, to end the indirect trade boycott of Israel has been proclaimed as a major breakthrough in the peace process.

Negotiated in large part by the US, the timing of the latest moves was clearly designed to emphasise the momentum towards Middle East peace. Tunisia is expected to follow Morocco by announcing that it will establish interest sections in Tel Aviv, as a prelude to full diplomatic relations. Yesterday, Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, met with Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan in Washington to cement the new Israeli-Jordanian friendship.

Such developments may help the goverment to slowly 'sensitise' Israeli public opinion favourably towards a deal with Syria, as an inevitable part of the process. However, some analysts believe the Israeli public may not be won round in this way.

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