Golan Heights buffer called unnecessary

Senior commander in Israel's army says country could withdraw


JERUSALEM - Israel's senior army commander says that his country could safely withdraw from the Golan Heights in any future peace settlement with Syria, without retaining any occupied territory there as a buffer.

Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the army chief of staff, broke with Israel's traditional position in an interview published yesterday with the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, saying: "From the point of view of military requirements, we could reach an agreement with Syria by giving up the Golan Heights. The army could defend Israel's borders wherever they are."

Israel usually argues that a complete withdrawal from the Golan, seized from Syria in 1967 and annexed in 1981, would leave northern Israeli towns once again vulnerable to Syrian missile and infantry attacks.

Israeli-Syrian peace talks collapsed in 2000 when Syria insisted on a complete Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 borders and Israel wanted some border adjustments near the Sea of Galilee.

Yaalon's comments were published just a day after Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made the mistake of telling Israelis that many more settlements in the West Bank would have to be dismantled before any peace can be reached with the Palestinians and the outside world.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made no secret of his annoyance with his chief deputy, authorizing an aide, Assaf Shariv, to say: "The prime minister was very angry when he heard of Ehud Olmert's comments. His comments were contrary to the positions of Ariel Sharon. The disengagement plan is the only plan on the table."

Sharon, with Olmert's prompting, is moving to disengage unilaterally from the entire Gaza Strip, which would involve dismantling Israeli settlements there. In a largely symbolic gesture, four settlements in the northern West Bank would also be dismantled.

The White House is demanding that Sharon include at least these four settlements in what his Likud Party has long insisted is part of Judea and Samaria, the biblical land of Israel, and thus belonging to the Jewish state.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, a Palestinian gunman ambushed and killed a Jewish settler, Shlomo Miller, who was in his car patrolling the perimeter fence of the settlement of Itamar, on a hill overlooking Nablus. The Palestinian, who used an AK-47 rifle, tried to escape with the Israeli's M-16 assault rifle, and was in turn fatally shot by settlement security guards. Responsibility for the attack was claimed in Nablus by Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a part of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

The group identified the Palestinian as a 27-year-old lieutenant in the Palestinian Preventive Security police.

In Gaza yesterday, four Palestinians were wounded as Israeli soldiers and tanks escorted two bulldozers into a section of Gaza City to demolish houses belonging to other Palestinians accused of attacking Israelis.

And in Jerusalem, the police announced the arrest of a third Palestinian in connection with a bomb set off near the Kalandia checkpoint Wednesday, which killed two Palestinian civilians and wounded 18 others, including six Israeli border police.

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