JERUSALEM (Feb. 24)
Israel and the United States are discussing a three-phase peace plan with Syria that would eventually entail a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, according to Knesset member Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu, a former deputy foreign minister who is running for leadership of the opposition Likud party, said in a radio interview Wednesday he had information that this was the substance of discussions between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his “American interlocutors.”
But there was no confirmation from the Prime Minister’s Office.
Netanyahu made the comments as U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher took a helicopter tour of the country’s eastern and northern fronts, to inspect for himself the geographic and strategic challenges to Israel’s security.
The secretary flew along the length of the “Green Line” separating Israel proper from the West Bank and then toured the Golan Heights.
The Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, accompanied Christopher on his tour, pointing out the strategic and military significance of the Golan.
After the tour, Christopher said he understood the situation much better, but would save his impressions “for later.”
“There is no question that geography complicates the matter and changes the situation very greatly,” the secretary said.
Netanyahu, who opposes Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, said the first phase of the plan being discussed with the United States involves an Israeli declaration of readiness to cede sovereignty over the strategic plateau to Syria.
The second stage would be a partial withdrawal, accompanied by the deployment of American peacekeeping forces on the territory vacated.
In the third and final stage, the Israeli army would withdraw entirely from the Golan. Netanyahu was vague on the issue of whether the purported plan would mean the removal of Israeli civilian settlements too.
GENERAL’S REMARKS CAUSE STIR
There was no immediate response to Netanyahu’s assertions from the government, which had its hands full dealing with another controversy over remarks made by the IDF deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Amnon Shahak.
Shahak, in an off-the-record briefing Tuesday for American journalists, was quoted as saying that Israel could maintain adequate security even if it gave up all of the Golan.
American reporters also quoted Shahak, identified in articles as a “senior military official,” as saying that “without withdrawal from the entire Golan Heights, there is no chance of peace.”
Likud and other right-wing politicians have demanded that Rabin dismiss Shahak for his remarks.
But the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement Wednesday saying Rabin, who is also defense minister, has full confidence in Shahak.
In the wake of the uproar, Shahak said Wednesday he was misquoted and that his statements were taken out of context.
“I am certain I didn’t say there is no chance of peace without a full withdrawal,” Shahak told Israeli army radio.
He went on to explain, “I meant to say, without recalling my exact words, that the Syrians won’t come to the peace process unless they believe that in negotiations one can also discuss withdrawal.”
But Shahak also stressed that as an army officer he believed the army’s mission is to implement whatever political decisions the government makes.
“The Israel Defense Force does not define formal borders or draw political maps. We do what we are told,” he said.
“If there is a threat to Israel from the Heights, then a variety of security arrangements will have to be made.”
Likud Knesset member Eliahu Ben-Elissar, Israel’s first ambassador to Cairo and a former chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, complained that even if Shahak’s words had been a slip of the tongue, he should be dismissed for allowing himself to fall into the trap.
“What is a senior officer doing making political statements to foreign correspondents?” Ben-Elissar asked.
Rabin has consistently said he would consider withdrawing from at least part of the Golan Heights, but he has never publicly stated what his final bargaining position would be in negotiations with Syria.
(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv.)