JERUSALEM, Dec. 13 (JTA) — A peace accord with Damascus will require “painful concessions” on the part of Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Barak told the Knesset on the eve of renewed Israeli-Syrian negotiations.
The Israeli leader appealed to the nation to entrust him with protecting the country’s security and interests.
“With full awareness of the weight of responsibility, I am going to the meeting in Washington on a mission of peace,” Barak said Monday. “I ask for the blessing of the people and the Knesset.”
Barak was scheduled to meet in the U.S. capital with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa on Wednesday, when the two were to resume peace negotiations broken off nearly four years ago.
The prime minister reiterated that Israel agreed to no preconditions to the resumption of talks, rejecting claims from his political opponents he agreed to a Syrian demand for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.
“The outcome of the negotiations has not been predetermined,” Barak said.
Just the same, he stressed that peace with Syria would carry a “heavy territorial price,” and he would do his utmost to achieve an agreement that protects Israel’s security and essential interests.
The extent of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights “will be determined in negotiations, based on the depth of peace and quality of security arrangements,” Barak said, as opposition legislators heckled him from the floor.
Barak warned against losing the opportunity to make peace with Syria.
“Squandering, heaven forbid, could cost us in blood.”
Barak reaffirmed his commitment to bring any agreement with Syria to a national referendum that would determine the future of the Golan, home to some 18,000 Israelis.
Barak said he believed the agreement would be overwhelmingly approved in the referendum.
Appealing to the Golan Heights residents, he said even they know, “in their heart of hearts,” that peace with Syria would come at a painful price.
Opposition leader Ariel Sharon accused the Israeli government of sowing confusion among the public and capitulating to the Syrians without asking for anything in return.
“You are hiding behind the declaration you did not promise the Syrians anything. That’s true, not you directly, but the Americans promised in your name,” Sharon said.
Sharon also accused Barak of using the peace process to divert attention from what he called failed domestic policies.
“The Barak government has failed in all its promises in the social sphere and displayed total insensitivity to the needs of the weaker sectors. The Barak government has failed, and required an ‘achievement’ to distance criticism of its detachment, and for that the government is ready to give up the Golan without anything in return and endanger the security of Israel.”
The full Knesset was slated to a vote on whether it supports renewed negotiations with Syria. It was expected to pass, though with a possibly narrow margin, after some of Barak’s right-of-center coalition partners said they will abstain or oppose the motion.
During the Knesset session, several thousand Golan residents and supporters opposed to a Golan withdrawal demonstrated opposite the Knesset building.
The protest was part of a campaign being waged by opponents of any territorial concessions in the name of peace.
“We will not give up, and we will reach every home in Israel, every party, every Knesset member, and with them we will all fight and declare, ‘We are not moving from the Golan,’ ” said Eli Malca, chairman of the Golan Residents Committee.
Miri Yanai, a resident of the Golan community of Katzrin for 22 years, told Israel Radio she has no intention of leaving.
“I arrived a young woman. We came as young families,” she said. “We are not moving anymore. Would you be ready to be uprooted in my place?”