March/April 2000


Apparently consigning the quest for peace with Syria to the next generation, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday lifted temporary building restrictions on the Golan Heights, to the immense relief of local residents. It is the clearest sign yet that Barak is now surrendered to the idea of carrying out a unilateral IDF withdrawal from Lebanon by July, a move that Damascus is trying to undermine at every turn.

The announcement of the building thaw came in a telephone call yesterday from Yossi Kucik, Director-General of the Prime Minister's Office, to Yehuda Wolman, the head of the Golan Regional Council. "As I promised you," Kucik said, "the freeze is over. All the projects are go."

After halting a number of projects to facilitate renewed peace talks with Syria late last year, Barak yesterday explained his new thinking in a press conference with visiting Chinese President Jiang Zemin. "I believe it's only natural that, since we see the door is left open a very small crack for the possibility of renewed talks with Syria, that part of the projects that had been delayed for several months on the Golan Heights will get permission to move forward," he stated.

"The Syrian story is over," Barak told his coalition later last night, "and will be so for a long time."

Golan residents - who had spent many a restless nights in recent months worrying about their future - praised the move and called on the government to turn development of the area into a national priority. Among the projects that are now freed up are new neighborhoods in Ramat Magshimim and Kanaf and nine other communities, expansion of agricultural lands and the industrial zone in Katzrin, and new hotels and other facilities at Kursi Beach and the hot springs spa at Hamat Gader.

Ironically, Kursi Beach lies in the hotly-contested strip of Kinneret shoreline where Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad claims he once barbecued and swam. In the recent failed talks, Barak had dangled the Hamat Gader resort before Assad as a possible trade-off for the swath of northeast Kinneret shoreline.

Wolman cautioned, "There is no need for euphoria, We have to remember that this is the Middle East and that everything can change here very fast... Israelis are not going to make a bee-line for the Golan now, it is going to take time."

But Katzrin Mayor Sami Bar-Lev said many new immigrants and young couples have been applying for housing in the region despite the uncertainties posed by the Israel-Syrian peace talks. He added that "if and when talks with Syria begin again... Syria will have to deal with a different reality."

The peace camp in Israel was noticeably silent in the wake of the announcement, while an unruffled US State Department official responded "it complicates efforts to make peace." The mute reaction stands in sharp contrast to Israeli settlement activity in Judea/Samaria and Gaza, where leftist peace activists currently are staging protests at new building sites in Har Gilo, Efrat and elsewhere.

Eli Malka, Chairman of the Golan Residents Committee, sent a letter of thanks to the YESHA communities residents for their part in the struggle against the abandonment of the Golan. "You were among the most dedicated in the struggle - a struggle that the Prime Minister was unable to ignore," Malka wrote. "The inhabitants of the Golan will continue, with you, to wave the banner of Zionist settlement in the Land of Israel."

France - which is reluctant to send troops to fill the vacuum left by an Israeli pullout in Lebanon - is trying desperately to keep the Syrian track alive, and are exploring with Damascus a new proposal to give Israel full sovereignty over the Kinneret's waters while returning the shoreline to Syrian control.

Syria, meanwhile, said it will not give up its claim to the Sea of Galilee even if that meant waiting "years and years" for the conflict with Israel to be resolved, according to one official paper. "The few meters that Israel refuses to turn over to Syria will cost it dearly, and the Barak government will bear the responsibility," added another Syrian daily.

Realizing that Barak is determined to go ahead with the Lebanon withdrawal under UN cover, Syria is now demanding that - after the IDF pullout - Israeli airplanes must stop flying over Lebanese territory and that its naval vessels stay out of Lebanon's territorial waters.

French officials who visited Damascus in recent days have told Jerusalem they got the impression that the Syrian regime has no interest in inflaming southern Lebanon, thus reducing chances of a "nightmare situation" after an Israeli withdrawal. But the French representatives emphasized that this depends on a complete Israeli withdrawal, including an end to naval patrols off the shores of Beirut and air force reconnaissance missions over southern Lebanon, as well as UN approval.

In their White House meeting on Tuesday, Barak told US President Bill Clinton that Israel will withdraw fully from southern Lebanon no later than July, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 425. Hoping to find a simple formula for resolving the question of the exact border, Barak made clear the IDF would redeploy to the international border set by the UN in 1978, as confirmed in a report by then-Secretary General Kurt Waldheim. He assured there would be no IDF outposts or fences left in Lebanese territory, so as to remove any pretext for continued cross-border attacks.

But earlier this week, Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss charged Israel with attempting to muddle the "border issue," saying, "the so-called '1978' border does not exist. The situation at the time on the border was loose and Israel used to enter Lebanese territory whenever and however it pleased." Hoss insisted, "The 1923 and 1949 borders are the same with no difference at all."

The Syrian drive to throw obstacles in the way of an IDF withdrawal from Lebanon found its way to Havana today, where Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara had an audience with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. After their meeting, Annan - who has already assured Barak of UN collaboration in the pullack - seemed much less enthusiastic about the venture. He said the UN would only cooperate if Israel conducted a full and unconditional exit from Lebanon in strict compliance with the terms of resolution 425.

Meanwhile, Hizb'Allah mortar rounds scored a lethal hit on an SLA position earlier this week, killing one SLA soldier and wounding two others. Hizb'Allah also fired rockets again into northern Israel, though no damage resulted.

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