Sharon - Peace with Syria would cost Golan Heights withdrawal

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

JERUSALEM -- Addressing two of Israel's thorniest issues, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told lawmakers Monday that peace with Syria would require a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights and ordered a review of the contentious West Bank separation barrier.

Sharon's comments on the Golan, made to parliament's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, were an unprecedented admission by the career hard-liner. In the past, right-wing Israeli governments insisted a peace deal could be reached without a withdrawal from the strategic plateau captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

The prime minister did not tell the closed-door meeting whe-ther he was willing to pay what he defined as the price for peace. However, one committee member said it was clear from the context that Sharon is not ready to return the Golan in exchange for a peace deal.

Also Monday, the Hamas founder announced a change in strategy, saying the Islamic militant group would increasingly recruit female suicide bombers. Last week, Hamas sent its first female assailant, a 22-year-old woman who blew herself up at the Gaza-Israel crossing and killed four Israeli border guards.

Sheik Ahmed Yassin told reporters in Gaza there had not been a need in the past for women to carry out bombings. Now, he said, women must step up and fulfill their "obligations." He suggested male bombers were increasingly being held back by Israeli security measures.

Sharon's meeting with the parliamentary committee came at a sensitive time.

Security barrier

Israel is preparing to defend the security barrier next month before the world court in The Hague, Netherlands. The government is also considering how to react to offers by Syrian President Bashar Assad to restart peace talks, which broke down in 2000.

In an interview published Monday in the London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Assad appeared pessimistic about the chances of talks with Sharon.

"From the beginning and until this moment, the U.S. administration did not wish to throw itself into the peace process. As for Sharon ... it is hard for him to succeed on a peace platform," Assad said.

The Syrian president has said talks must resume where they broke off under Sharon's predecessor, Ehud Barak. But Sharon wants to start from scratch and also has demanded that Syria crack down on militant groups.

Syria is on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, and Washington has threatened to impose sanctions for harboring anti-Israel militants. But some Cabinet ministers say Israel should take Syria up on its offer.

Sharon was asked by a lawmaker at Monday's committee meeting if now is a good time to renew talks with Syria, said Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin.

"No one should have any illusions. The price of peace with Syria is leaving the Golan Heights," Gissin quoted the prime minister as saying.

Ran Cohen, a committee member from the left-wing Meretz Party, said Sharon suggested such a pullback would be too much for Israel to bear.

"His main declaration was that he is not ready to withdraw from the Golan, even for peace with Syria," Cohen told the Associated Press. "He didn't agree to pay the price that President Assad asks to complete a peace treaty with Syria."

At Monday's meeting, Sharon also said he has asked governmental committees to review the separation barrier, a senior official said.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the government has asked committees to study possible changes in the route as well as technical means of easing movement for Palestinians.

Israel says the 440-mile barrier, which is one-quarter built, protects against suicide bombers and other attackers. But the barrier has severely disrupted the lives of tens of thousand of Palestinians, separating them from their farmland, jobs, hospitals and schools.

Any changes would be applied only to existing portions of the structure, the official said. One of its most controversial elements -- a section extending 25 miles into the West Bank to enclose four Jewish settlements there -- has yet to be built.

The announcement came as Israel's foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, said he would be traveling next week to Jordan, a leading critic of the barrier.

Jordan fears construction will lead to large-scale immigration by Palestinians from the West Bank. A majority of Jordan's citizens are of Palestinian origin.

An official in Jerusalem, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the barrier would be on the agenda of the Jan. 28 meetings in Amman.

The Israelis will try to persuade Jordan that the barrier is meant only to protect Israel's security and not intended to push Palestinians into Jordan, the official said.

"I want to emphasize that Jordan is not Palestine and Israel does not support any kind of Palestinian resettlement in Jordan," Shalom said.

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