Israel-Syria Talks Raise Concerns on Golan Heights

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak plans to ask Syria to clamp down on the Hizballah terrorist organization's activities in Lebanon during his first meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara next week in Washington.

Meanwhile, Israeli residents of the Golan Heights are preparing to battle Israel's anticipated withdrawal from the strategic plateau that might happen as part of a peace deal with Syria. Such a move would mean the evacuation of the 18,000 Israeli residents living in 33 communities there.

A senior official quoted in The Jerusalem Post said Barak wants Syria to use its influence on Hizballah, in order to have a quiet atmosphere in the region during talks between the two countries.

"The issue of quiet in Lebanon is not exactly a prerequisite [for negotiations]," the official said, "but is one of our first and prime requests."

Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1982 to drive out terrorist organizations, which regularly attacked Israeli communities from across the border. At the end of the war, a buffer zone was set up in southern Lebanon, secured by Israel and its allied South Lebanese Army.

Hizballah (the Party of Allah) is an Iranian-backed terrorist organization whose stated goal is to drive Israel out of the security zone and then from "Palestine." It is based in Syrian-controlled areas of Lebanon.

As part of his election campaign last spring, Barak vowed to withdraw Israeli troops from south Lebanon within a year of becoming prime minister. He has repeatedly promised to fulfill that pledge even if Israel has to withdrawal unilaterally, without a peace agreement with Syrian-controlled Lebanon.

However, that may not be necessary. With the imminent resumption of talks between Israel and Syria, negotiations between Israel and Lebanon may soon follow.

"If the talks with Syria reopen, they will lead us to the start of talks with the Lebanese and there is a real chance that in the coming months we will reach agreements with both of these countries," Barak told a Labor Party meeting on Thursday.

Earlier in the day, Lebanon expressed its satisfaction over the renewal of peace talks.

"We welcome the resumption of talks," said Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss in a statement. "We look forward to resumption on the Lebanese track soon."

"No doubt the talks will be arduous, but we hope that it will not be long before they bear fruit ... a just and comprehensive peace which restores land to its owners," he said.

The Golan Residents Committee held an emergency session Thursday evening to approve a campaign aimed at reminding Israelis across the nation how important the Golan Heights are to the entire country.

They will hold a rally on the Golan on Saturday evening and a protest in front of the Knesset on Monday - the same day Barak travels to Washington to begin talks with the Syrians on Tuesday.

Marla Van Meter, spokeswoman for the Golan Residents Committee, told that the campaign was a continuation of one they have been waging for the last seven years "reminding and instilling in the Israeli public the importance of the Golan Heights to everyone."

Van Meter said the committee believes "that the Golan belongs to the entire state of Israel" and giving it up would "affect" the whole country.

Should Israeli leaders agree to cede the Golan Heights to Syrian President Hafez Assad, and return to the borders in place before the 1967 Six Day War, the agreement will still require the support of 61 out of 120 Knesset members, and a majority of Israelis voting in a national referendum.