Remark on Israeli Talks with Syria Draws Fire from Cabinet Hard-liners

An Israeli Cabinet minister’s assertion that Israel is ready to enter negotiations with Syria on its territorial claims has triggered sharp protests among hardline members of the governing coalition.

The government vigorously denied any change of policy with respect to the Golan Heights after Health Minister Ehud Olmert, a politically moderate member of the Likud bloc, told a pro-Israel audience in Washington on Sunday that Israel was prepared to negotiate with Syria on “all issues,” including territory.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said Olmert merely meant that the Syrians could raise their territorial demands in the course of negotiations. But he said that as far as Israel is concerned, the Golan is “not a subject for territorial negotiation.”

Olmert gave the same interpretation Monday in media interviews in Washington.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 and formally annexed it in 1980.

Shamir made his comments on television after fielding questions about Olmert’s statements at a hearing of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

But the uproar was a preview of the political explosion that could rock Israel if it ever entertained the idea of territorial compromise for peace with its neighbors.

Olmert spoke at the 32nd annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the main Israel lobby in Washington.

Discussing the situation in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf war, he told the 2,000 delegates that Israel would waste no time seeking peace with its Arab neighbors and is prepared to negotiate with Syria.

“We are ready to negotiate all the issues, all of the claims, all of the demands, including the territorial demands of the Syrians” as well as Israeli demands, he said.

TEHIYA THREATENS TO PULL OUT

Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, a Likud hardliner, told the Knesset on Monday that the best answer to speculation about the future of the Golan Heights is more intensified building of Jewish settlements there.

Knesset member Geula Cohen, whose Tehiya party favors annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, called Olmert’s statement “stupid and damaging.” She threatened her three-seat party would quit the government unless Shamir put matters right.

The chief of staff of the Prime Minister’s Office, Yossi Ahimeir, promptly telephoned the local council of Katzrin, the largest Jewish settlement in the Golan, to assure it that Shamir’s position is unchanged.

The annexation 10 years ago remains the formal, unswerving position of the government, he said.

Eli Malka, chairman of the Golan Settlement Council, said he and his colleagues were satisfied by Ahimeir’s call. He attacked Olmert for making ill-advised, “irresponsible and immoral” statements and urged him to stick to his own department in the future.

But the government’s speedy reassertion of its policy of no concessions on the Golan was somewhat deflated by Interior Minister Arye Deri of Shas, the largest religious party in Shamir’s coalition.

He observed that like it or not, the precedent of land-for-peace was established when Israel withdrew from Sinai after signing a peace treaty with Egypt.

Shimon Peres, leader of the opposition Labor Party, did not comment on the Golan Heights.

But he said the “two-track” approach to the peace process advocated by Shamir to the United States led nowhere on either track. It calls for parallel talks between Israel and the Arab states and Israel and the Palestinians.

On the Palestinian track, there is nobody to whom the prime minister is prepared to talk, Peres said. And on the Arab states track, there is “nothing he is prepared to talk about.”

The Laborite commented after Shamir told the Knesset panel that the Palestinian leaders who met with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker in Jerusalem last week were not people Israel would talk to.

According to Shamir, all of them are officials of the Palestine Liberation Organization, with whom Israel would never negotiate. He demanded that the Palestinians seek “other leaders” to represent them.

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