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Israel Denies New Golan Heights Settlement Plans - 2004-01-04


Israel has moved to try to calm Syrian and U.S. anger over a plan to expand Jewish settlements on the Golan Heights.

Israel's deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, denies the government has approved an expansion of Jewish settlements on the Golan Heights.

He was responding to an announcement last week that an Israeli ministerial committee had given the go-ahead for another 900 families to settle on the Golan, where about 18,000 Israelis reside.

The announcement by Israel's agriculture minister, Yisrael Katz, was made just weeks after Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, called for a resumption of peace talks with Israel.

"All the news about a comprehensive expansion of Israeli buildings on the Golan Heights is untrue," said Mr. Olmert, distancing the government from Mr. Katz's statement. "There is no such program. The government has not approved of it. And the publications were exaggerated and blown out of any proportion."

His remarks were aimed at appeasing both Syria and the United States.

Syria is seeking the return of the Golan, a strategic plateau captured by Israel during the 1967 Middle East War. The United States wants the two countries to return to negotiations aimed at reaching a land-for-peace deal.

Mr. Olmert's statements also coincided with an assessment by the head of Israel's military intelligence, General Aharon Ze'evi Farkash, presented to the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday.

General Farkash says Syrian President Assad's recent remarks regarding the possibility of resuming peace talks with Israel are, in his opinion, very serious. He says the Syrian leader's comments are partly a response to pressure from Washington.

But General Farkash says that, while Syria is holding out the option of renewing dialogue with Israel, it still supports terrorism. He warns that Syria is continuing to finance, what he called, Palestinian terror organizations and the Lebanese guerilla group Hezbollah, which is opposed to Israel's existence.

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