JERUSALEM, Dec. 9 (JTA) — As preparations began for Israeli-Syrian peace talks in Washington next week, leaders here insisted that Israel had made no concessions to Syria’s demand for a full Golan Heights withdrawal.
“The government did not commit to anything or concede on any issues — not on settlements, water, the border line and the Lebanon issue. All of these issues will be discussed in the negotiations,” Foreign Minister David Levy told Israel Radio.
Levy also stressed that Israel would never agree to the Syrian demand for an Israeli pullback on the Golan Heights to the line held by Damascus on the eve of the 1967 Six-Day War.
“We will not go into an arrangement which means the line of the Galilee, period. I repeat the government announcement, which is known to all, that there’s no return to the line of the Galilee or June 4, 1967,” Levy told Army Radio.
The foreign minister’s remarks followed President Clinton’s announcement Wednesday that Israel and Syria would resume negotiations next week from where they left off in 1996. Clinton is due to open the summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa.
Barak hailed the unprecedented political level of negotiations, saying it was what Israel had sought for years. With this, he acknowledged that crises lay ahead.
“The Syrians are champions of brinkmanship,” he told the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot. Barak said he believes his own straight-talking manner played a part in Assad’s decision to reopen the talks.
“Assad decided to resume negotiations after it was proven that what I say I will do, I do. I promised to advance negotiations with the Palestinians, and the negotiations moved forward.”
The prime minister added that Assad was also persuaded to resume negotiations by Barak’s declared target date of July 2000 to pull Israeli troops out of Lebanon, where Syria is a main power broker.
Reports said the summit meeting, to be followed by intensive discussions in the region, will initially address technical matters regarding the format of the negotiations. The substantive issues on the negotiating agenda will include the final border, security arrangements including early-warning stations for Israel, control of water resources and the nature of peace-time relations, including diplomatic and commercial ties.
Barak speculated that negotiations with Lebanon could be positively influenced by the Syrian track, but would be held separately.
The Israeli prime minister also expressed confidence that a promised national referendum on a future Israeli-Syrian peace deal would receive overwhelming support.
Initial reaction from the Israeli opposition indicated otherwise.
“We will mobilize as many people to oppose this,” said Likud Knesset member and former Defense Minister Moshe Arens. Arens and other opposition members charge Barak with capitulating to Syrian demands, including a full Golan Heights withdrawal.
Opposition leader Ariel Sharon said the Americans were informed that Barak was ready to withdraw to the 1967 borders. He accused Barak of pushing the talks with Syria in order to avert criticism of its social and economic failures.
“Barak failed and needs an ‘achievement’ to distance criticism,” Sharon said in a Likud meeting, “and for this he is ready to give up the Golan Heights without anything in return, and to endanger Israel.”
In light of the developments, the ties holding Barak’s diverse coalition together showed some strain.
“I am concerned about this and truly hope there was no understanding regarding an Israeli withdrawal which enabled the resumption of talks,” the head of the National Religious Party, Cabinet minister Yitzhak Levy, told Israel Radio. “The NRP remains committed to its opposition to giving up the Golan Heights or dismantling Jewish settlements there.”
Some 18,000 Israeli Jews reside on the Golan Heights. Their reaction Thursday was mixed.
Yehuda Wolman, chairman of the Golan regional council, said peace is impossible if it is based on the dismantling of Jewish settlements.
“My face is turned towards the battle to preserve the Golan,” Wolman told Israel Radio
However, Katzrin resident Yoav Tzur said Barak had laid out his objectives clearly in his elections campaign, and however painful, peace with Syria carries a price.
“I have lived here for 21 years,” he said. “I built my home here. But someone who says peace with the Golan is not true. If we make peace with Syria, then we have to pay a price. It’s clear.”