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www3.haaretz.co.il/eng/scripts/show_katava.asp?id=26582&mador=1&datee=8/20/98

Thursday, August 20, 1998

Golan settlements to add 5,000 units, ministers rule

By Ziv Maor and David Makovsky, Ha'aretz Correspondents and Agencies
 

A ministerial committee yesterday approved a plan to expand four settlements in the southern Golan Heights - the largest expansion in the Golan since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office - and establish five new towns and a college in the Negev.

The committee on the development of the Negev and the Galilee, headed by Minister of National Infrastructure Ariel Sharon, discussed the expansion of four settlements on the western mountainside of the Golan Heights - Ramot, Ma'aleh Gamla, Kanaf and Had-Nes. The decision to expand was originally reached a month ago, but Netanyahu urged Sharon to delay it by a few weeks due to the visit of Syrian President Hafez Assad in Paris.

About 2,300 housing units and 2,500 vacation units will be built according to the plan. Sharon said the plan would create 5,000 jobs in the Golan Heights. However, dozens of apartments in the Golan Heights remain empty.

The ministerial committee's decision came several weeks after the national council for building and construction decided to allow the towns of the Golan Heights to expand by up to 400 housing units each. Currently, the average size of the towns in the Golan Heights is 100 to 150 housing units.

Despite the decision of the national council, Sharon's plan will clearly result in some towns having much more than 400 housing units, contradicting the guidelines of the national council.

The ministerial panel's decision to expand four Golan settlements yesterday marks the largest expansion in the Golan since the Netanyahu government came to power. Until now, the Netanyahu government only expanded settlements in the Golan a few units at a time. The move is particularly significant given the fact there are only about 15,000 people living in the entire Golan.

Asked last night if he thought the settlement expansion would undermine the resumption of peace talks with Syria, Sharon told Ha'aretz, "why should it have any negative impact on talks with Syria? We are talking about expanding existing settlements. This is in keeping with the policy of this government. There is always building there."

Prof. Itamar Rabinovich, a Syria expert who headed the peace talks with Damascus during the previous government, said the move yesterday would have severe consequences. In a telephone interview from New York, Rabinovich said, "in the recent period, Syria has been weighing the positive and negative aspects of renewing talks with Israel. This decision is likely to tip the balance in favor of the most skeptical view of the Netanyahu government's real intentions about restarting peace talks."

Those in attendance at yesterday's ministerial panel were its chairman, Sharon, Environment and Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan, and Science Minister Silvan Shalom. The defense, finance and interior ministries were represented by lower-ranking officials. No objections were raised.

The ministerial committee also approved the construction of five new towns in the Negev: one adjacent to Be'er Ora, in the Eilot Strip; a community town near the youth village in Nitzana; a community village called Be'er Malka near Nitzana, a community village called Kfar David in the area of Sdeh Boker; a community village called Ovdat, west of Tel Ovda; and a college for environmental studies.

In Syria, the Tishrin government newspaper yesterday said peace talks with Israel would never resume without an irrevocable Israeli commitment to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. The paper's comments came in response to remarks made Tuesday by Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.

Mordechai called on Syria to resume peace talks but denied he has softened his position on an Israeli troop withdrawal from the Golan. He told a news conference that the government would not give up the entire Golan under any circumstances. "I see the Golan as strategic territory vital for the defense of northern Israel."

The Al-Thawra daily called Israel's latest statements "provocative," saying they had put an end to the peace process.

"There is no credibility in the statements and intentions of the Israeli leaders who prefer tension, explosion, expansion and aggression to peace and security," it said.

(c) copyright 1998 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved




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