Amid new peace bids, Israel stays tough

Israel has announced a new $56-million program to double the number of settlers in the Golan Heights.

Whether it was a message to Syria alone, or to the Arab world as a whole, it was not intended to be subtle.

Just weeks after Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad called for an unconditional resumption of peace talks with Israel, Israel has responded with plans for its biggest settlement drive ever in the occupied Golan Heights.

"The idea is that Assad will see from his own window the Israeli Golan Heights thriving and flowering," said Yisrael Katz, the minister of agriculture, of the strategic plateau captured in 1967 and annexed in 1981. He says 900 new homes are to be built in existing and new settlements. The plan would spend at least $56 million to double the region's settler population.

The rebuff to Syria, the ruling out of new negotiating concessions in the West Bank, and official statements point up that despite Israel's strategic bonanza from the United States occupation of Iraq, and resulting winds of change in the region, Israel is adhering to a view of itself as surrounded by a threatening environment. And it remains averse to ceding land.

Critics say the posture is misguided, and potentially perilous.

"There is no real enemy anymore, but unfortunately the strategic thinking has not changed," says Tel Aviv University political scientist Reuven Pedhazur. The army agrees Israel is better off today than before the American occupation of Iraq.

Referring to Libya's agreement to disband unconventional weapons and Iran's agreement to open up nuclear installations, chief of staff Moshe Yaalon, told Yediot Ahronot newspaper last weekend: "The American action in Iraq is beginning to bear fruit in the region. We are seeing a positive domino effect."

But in the same interview, Yaalon dismissed the idea of trimming the military's size and programs. He said this was impossible since a moderate Arab regime could be overthrown, the Iranians may continue to try to acquire nuclear capability, US influence could wane, and Syria still has 4,000 tanks and hundreds of planes.

If anything, Israel today faces a greater "existential threat" than ever before, according to Mossad chief Meir Dagan, because Iran, he said recently, is close to "the point of no return" in developing nuclear arms.

Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, says Israel is not interested in Assad's statements but rather in Syria acting against the Lebanese Hizbullah organization and shut down radical Palestinian groups in its territory.

In Gold's view, peace arrangements with Syria need not include an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan. "In a global sense there are disputed territories and states can move to a modus vivendi without resolving them," Gold told Israel Radio. "The Russians are in islands that are very important to Japan. They have contacts, and relations continue. There is the disputed area in Kashmir. Part is in Pakistani hands and part Indian. At times they get along and at times they are on the brink of war. But you need not solve every territorial dispute in order to build a regional security system."

Gold dismisses Jordanian arguments that the Iraq war has opened the way for new Israeli flexibility in the West Bank. Jordan says that with the US occupying Iraq, Israel can no longer credibly say it needs the strategic Jordan valley as a buffer to protect it from invasion from the east.

The area, Amman insists, should become part of a Palestinian state. But Gold says that the Iraqi army's inventory of shoulder fired missiles was found to be missing, and that they and other lethal weapons could end up being used against Israeli targets.

"If Israel left the Jordan Valley it would lead to the hills of the West Bank being flooded with the illegal weaponry moving around the area," he says.

Gold adds that talk of a "window of opportunity" with the Palestinians is baseless since the Palestinian Authority is not implementing its obligations under the international peace blueprint known as the road map which requires them to disarm and dismantle militant groups that carry out terrorist attacks.

Pedhazur believes the government's strategy is to avoid negotiations "We could use this window of opportunity to try to work on agreements with the Palestinians and Syrians but Sharon does not want this.

When they speak of the threat of illegal Iraqi weapons being trafficked through the Jordan Valley, they are still talking as if the Iraqi army exists as an enemy. They do not want to give up anything so they invent enemies and blow up any kind of threat."

Yossi Sarid, an opposition lawmaker, says the government's posture reminds him of how Israel dismissed a peace overtures from Egypt in 1971. He recalls that at the time, as a young activist in the Labor party, he brought Prime Minister Golda Meir a message from an acquaintance who had met with President Anwar Sadat.

The message was that Mr. Sadat wanted to negotiate. Mr. Sarid says that Ms. Meir flew into a rage, saying that she knew of the offer and that Sadat would expect all of the Sinai Peninsula, captured in 1967, to be returned to Egypt.

"I left her office distressed and I was embarrassed to tell the emissary her answer," he says.

Two years later, Sadat launched the Yom Kippur (October) war.

Sarid believes Israel will not face a repeat of that, but could face more severe terrorism as a result of the government's posture.

Jordanian political analyst Radwan Abdallah says the Arab world is grappling with how to react to Israel's strategic gains. "These are the most favorable conditions that can ever exist for the Israelis, and that should make other states more inclined to compromise," he says. "But if Israel does not take this opportunity, it will be a signal it is not interested in peace. The whole region will really feel insecure about Israel's intentions and there will be more of an interest in cooperation among Arab states and between Arab countries and Iran. The Middle East could become even more dangerous."

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