Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - A Syrian newspaper Monday demanded that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak present a letter confirming that previous Israeli prime ministers had agreed to a withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
The demand appeared on the front page of the Syrian ruling party's Al-Ba'ath newspaper, apparently in response to reports that Barak was trying to soften the blow of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan by pointing out that former prime ministers had already agreed to do so.
Barak indicated on Sunday that he was willing to return the entire Golan Heights to Syria as part of a treaty but he drew a red line at the Sea of Galilee.
He told his cabinet that former Likud premiers Yitzhak Shamir and Binyamin Netanyahu, as well as Labor prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, had all offered to return the Golan to Syrian President Hafez Assad and he did not mean to "erase the past."
Barak said Shamir had in effect agreed to a Golan withdrawal by attending the 1991 Middle East peace conference in Madrid. Shamir has since then denied that he ever had that intention.
The Madrid Conference, which took place on the heels of the Gulf War, provided the springboard for the current bilateral and multilateral talks between Middle Eastern nations and Israel. The basis for the conference were United Nations resolutions calling for the return of territories captured in war.
Barak told his ministers that Netanyahu had agreed in secret negotiations to a pull back to the border existing before the Six Day War in 1967.
But Netanyahu Monday denied that he had agreed to a withdrawal to the 1967 border. In a radio interview, Netanyahu said he had asked for and received a letter from then Secretary of State Warren Christopher, releasing Israel from any former pledges regarding the Golan as far as the U.S. was concerned.
Netanyahu said he intended for Israel to remain on the Heights and retain control of critical water sources there in the event of a treaty between Jerusalem and Damascus. He also said he had received a long-term commitment from Assad that Israel could retain its early-warning station on Mt. Hermon on the Golan Heights.
According to Barak, Rabin had presented Assad with a hypothetical promise of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan - if Israel would receive the security and other guarantees it demanded it would relinquish all of the Golan Heights. Peres had also taken that line, he said.
However, Peres said Monday Israel would never agree to give Syria water rights in the Sea of Galilee, the fresh-water body that supplies about a third of Israel's drinking water.
The difference between the international border and the 1967 border is that of control over water sources. If the new border is drawn at the Sea of Galilee, Syria's rights to the body of water are guaranteed by international law.
Even if the border does not come right down to the lake, Syria could conceivably control the rivers that feed the Galilee.
"We are reaching the end of a decade of peace talks," Barak was quoted as telling his ministers. "And we need to ask ourselves the ultimate question now: Are the circumstances right for a formal peace between us and our neighbors?"
During the eight-hour cabinet meeting, Barak also assured ministers he would insist on an early-warning station that would allow Israel "dozens of hours of warning" in the event of a Syrian attack.
"We will never allow ourselves to be in a situation where we get a warning only when Syrian tanks are crossing the border."
Barak said he also wanted international overseers to monitor such a warning system.
Syria has said it would never permit early warning systems to be stationed on its territory.
Barak also repeated his pledge to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon in four months' time, with or without an agreement with Syria.
"We prefer to reach an agreement by July 2000, but if we do not reach an agreement, we will pull out our forces to the international border between us and Lebanon anyhow," Barak said.
Defense officials have warned that northern Israel will likely suffer from Hizballah attacks if Israeli troops are withdrawn without an agreement guaranteeing security. However, Syria - the main power broker in Lebanon - refuses to allow Beirut to sign an agreement with Israel not linked to an broader Israeli-Syrian deal.