Word that Israel would soon return to the bargaining table with Syria has elicited a barrage of criticism from Israel’s opposition parties.
Opposition leaders, charging that the government of Prime Minister Shimon Peres was rushing into the negotiations, submitted a series of no-confidence motions against the government.
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu focused his criticism on the potential Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
During his visit last week to Washington, Peres reportedly signaled his willingness to cede the Golan Heights, captured by Israel during the 1967 Six- Day War, to Syria.
“We will certainly do all we can to prevent the government from carrying out its intention to hand over the Golan,” Netanyahu told Israel Radio.
In another interview, Netanyahu said an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan could “open a future war.”
Netanyahu rejected reports that both sides had agreed to return to the bargaining table without any preconditions.
“My information is that Mr. Peres has passed on to Syria a full Israeli willingness to accept Syrian sovereignty over the entire Golan Heights,” he told Israel Radio.
Knesset member Eliezer Sandberg of the Tsomet Party called for early elections.
The leadership of the Golan Residents Council asked for an immediate meeting with Peres to discuss the latest developments.
U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher officially announced the resumption of Israeli-Syrian negotiations at a news conference with Peres on Saturday night in jerusalem.
Christopher, who made the announcement after two days of talks in the Israeli and Syrian capitals, pledged that the United States would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Israel as it seeks peace with Syria.
Peres told the gathering of reporters that Israel would move “as fast as we can” in the negotiations with Syria.
Peres described the talks, which were broken off six months ago in a dispute over future security arrangements on the Golan, as “a new beginning” in the long-fruitless discussions with Damascus.
Christopher reiterated the United States would try to come up with proposals to help bridge differences between the two sides.
The announcement of the talks’ resumption comes amid a widespread belief that Israel and Syria are closer than ever to reaching an agreement.
A senior U.S. official traveling with Christopher reportedly said the two sides were speaking with more openness and with a willingness to tackle a broader range of issues than before the Nov. 4 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
The talks are scheduled to begin Dec. 27 for three days at a site near Washington, recess for a week and then resume for another three days during the first week in January.
After that, Christopher told reporters, he will return to the Middle East in mid-January for another round of talks with Peres and Syrian President Hefez Assad.
Under a new framework for the talks, the negotiating teams were expected to address a number of issues simultaneously.
Israeli sources said the first round of talks would deal with procedural issues; working groups would begin more substantive work in the second round, tackling such issues as security arrangements, borders, water rights and economic cooperation.
Foreign Minister Ehud Barak, who met Sunday morning with Christopher, said the new format would prevent talks from breaking down over any single issue.
“We are launching a very important and significant process,” Barak later told reporters. “It is a first step in a long journey.”
The Israel team will reportedly include Israeli Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich, Foreign Ministry Director General Uri Savir, Gens. Uzi Dayan and Danny Yatom and possibly the Foreign Ministry’s legal adviser, Yoel Singer.
The Syrian team was expected to include the country’s ambassador to the United States, Walid Muallem, along with other officials.
During his latest round of Middle East shuttle diplomacy – his eighth in the past two years – Christopher also met with Jordan’s King Hussein and with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat.
On Sunday, before returning to Washington, Christopher traveled to Cairo for a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.