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Golan Settlers Wrestle With Wisdom Of Israeli Withdrawal

December 27, 1995

MEVO HAMMA, Golan Heights (AP) _ Amitai Shelem’s position atop a cliff on the Golan Heights afforded him a comfortable perch to survey much of northern Israel stretching to the Mediterranean Sea.

``Have we gone mad?″ the settler asked, pondering the notion that the government might order a withdrawal from the plateau for a peace treaty with Syria.

With Israel-Syria peace talks set to resume today in Washington, the once-unthinkable prospect is beginning to seem real to the 13,000 Israelis living on the Golan.

Some are even getting used to the idea.

``I don’t want to leave my home, but I don’t think the personal issue is relevant,″ said Yigal Kipnis, a 46-year-old citrus grower who made the rocky, windswept plateau his home 17 years ago. If the Golan could be traded for peace, he said, ``It’s worth it.″

Yet since Israel began peace talks with Syria in 1991, and especially in the three years since Yitzhak Rabin was elected premier, a Golan settlers’ lobby has fought to galvanize public opinion against giving up the territory.

Stickers and placards proclaiming ``The people are with the Golan″ popped up everywhere, and polls showed a strong majority of Israelis opposed the total Golan pullout Syria demands in exchange for peace.

Even so, Kipnis maintained, most Golan settlers have gradually reached the same conclusion he has _ but have remained silent on an issue that has the potential to sharply divide their close-knit rural communities.

Such a trend would reflect an apparent softening of Israeli public opinion in general following Rabin’s assassination last month by a Jewish extremist opposed to his policy of giving up land for peace.

Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Rabin’s successor, is calculating he can rally support behind a Golan-for-peace deal if it is widened to include Syrian-controlled Lebanon _ where Israel faces a war of attrition _ in addition to Syria itself, and is cosigned by most Arab leaders.

Such a deal, Peres promises, would end almost a century of Arab-Israeli conflict and give Israel crucial leverage in negotiating a permanent peace settlement with the Palestinians after the current autonomy period, which is to last through 1999.

The PLO’s case for a foothold in the holy city of Jerusalem, for example, would be weakened if the entire Arab world were already living in harmony with the Jewish state, Israeli officials suggest.

Shelem, who moved here four months after Israel seized the heights in the June 1967 war, worries that sacrificing the Golan is unnecessary. Unlike the 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the 18,000 Arab Druse residents of the Golan were never restive, and the cease-fire line between Israel and Syria has remained quiet for decades.

``The situation for the last 20 years has been one of peace,″ said the 54-year-old father of four. ``It might take 10 or 20 years but (formal) peace could be reached without giving up the Golan.″

Hundreds of yards below the former Syrian military outpost where Shelem stood was the Sea of Galilee, which is ringed by Israeli kibbutzes and resorts and provides nearly one-third of Israel’s drinking water.

``Jews cannot live down there with Syrians up here,″ Shelem warned.

Israel is seeking a large demilitarized zone as a possible solution.

In any case, officials are hinting a pullout from the territory of almost 450 square miles is near.

Hagai Meron, who heads Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, suggested Tuesday that the government should begin preparing to move the settlers out and pay them compensation.

Israel’s Channel 2 TV said Uri Savir, the head of the Israeli delegation to the talks, had permission from Peres to discuss a full withdrawal from the Golan.

And Peres, in comments to high school students in the northern city of Haifa, said Israel ``cannot run away from ... tough decisions″ en route to peace with Syria.

Despite such signals, Shelem said normal life in his community was continuing. It even recently invested $2.8 million in a new plastics factory.

``We have decided to live full, normal lives anyway,″ he said. ``Maybe that’s what keeps us sane.″

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