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Weizman: Israel Must Return Golan

June 26, 1999 GMT

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ It is in Israel’s interests to return the Golan Heights to Syria, Israeli President Ezer Weizman said in remarks published Saturday.

In an interview with the veteran British journalist Patrick Seale, published in the Arabic daily Al Hayat of London, Weizman said Israel could not withdraw from Lebanon without an agreement with Syria.

Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak has pledged to withdraw within 12 months Israel’s 1,500 troops from Lebanon, where Syria stations some 35,000 soldiers and is the dominant power.

Weizman said he would not mind if 5,000 to 10,000 Syrian troops remained in Lebanon after a peace agreement.

Asked whether it was necessary for Israel to withdraw from the Golan, Weizman said: ``Yes, ... for the good of Israel, the interest of Israel’s economy and our capacity to absorb more immigrants.″

Syria has long demanded a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a plateau that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. In turn, Israel wants Syria to make moves compatible with full peace, such as opening borders and trade.

There are strong hopes in the Arab world that Barak, who defeated the hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in last month’s elections, will resume peace talks with Syria _ which have not taken place since February 1996 _ and break the deadlock in the negotiations with the Palestinians.

Weizman said it would be good if the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were to proceed at the same pace as the Israeli-Syrian ones.

If this were not possible, he said, ``we should negotiate with the Palestinians first. The Palestinians are afraid we will betray them by ignoring them and going to (Syrian President Hafez) Assad.″

Weizman said he feared that the Arab-Israeli dispute could change form.

``What I am dearly want to avoid is for the conflict between us and the Arabs to change into a religious conflict. Islam and Judaism are closer to each other than Christianity and Judaism. Christianity harmed us more, caused us more troubles and committed atrocities against us more than what Islam did.″

``Islam treated Jews well until the creation of Israel,″ he said, referring to the large Jewish communities in predominantly Muslim Arab states until Israel’s independence in 1948.

``There was no Auschwitz,″ he said, naming the Nazi concentration camp where Jews were gassed during World War II.