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Sunday, 27 February, 2000, 15:37 GMT
Israel plays down peace prospects
Two guerrillas
Two Hezbollah fighters training on Katyusha rockets
Peace between Israel and Syria is "far from certain", despite pressure from the US for a deal by May, the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said on Sunday.

His comments, quoted by Israel radio, came at the beginning of a cabinet debate on Israel's proposed withdrawal from Lebanon - where Syria is the major power broker.

Mr Barak has pledged to end two decades of occupation in south Lebanon by July, with or without agreement from Lebanon or Syria.

Barak at cabinet meeting
Barak was downbeat at the opening of the meeting
Israeli radio quoted Mr Barak as telling the cabinet that Syrian President Hafez Assad feared for the survival of his regime if he made peace with Israel.

He also reportedly said that Mr Clinton was impatient for results because he was nearing the end of his presidency.

"Clinton is in a hurry because he is coming to the end of his term as president and fears a wave of Islamist violence that could ruin hopes for Middle East peace," the radio quoted Mr Barak as saying.

Negotiating issues

It also said Mr Barak outlined Israel's objectives for negotiations with Syria:
  • To ensure an Israeli deterrent force
  • To normalise relations
  • To sort out water sharing issues
Syria's key objective is to regain the Golan Heights.

The cabinet meeting follows an upsurge in violence in Lebanon.

Hezbollah guerrillas have this year killed seven Israeli soldiers in Israel's self-declared security zone in southern Lebanon. Retaliatory Israeli raids knocked out electricity and injured 22 civilians.

Fighting again flared on Sunday as guerrillas wounded a pro-Israeli militiaman with a roadside bomb, and stepped up their bombardments of Israeli outposts in the region.

Israeli warplanes and artillery struck suspected Hezbollah targets in response.

Public disquiet

An Israeli army officer told AP news agency that the increased guerrilla activity was timed to coincide with the cabinet meeting to pressure the government into an early withdrawal.

Israel Lebanon border
Israel fears attacks from over the Lebanese border if it withdraws
The mounting Israeli casualties have led to increased public disquiet in Israel over its continued presence in Lebanon.

The issues were highlighted by the announcement on Sunday that an Israeli soldier had been jailed by a military court for refusing the serve in south Lebanon.

The soldier, a tank technician, confessed that he was too scared to return to the border zone. He was sentenced to a month in jail.

Syria has more than 30,000 troops in Lebanon. Hezbollah's Iranian-bought arms and munitions are delivered through Syria.

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See also:

23 Feb 00 |  Middle East
Lebanon: End of war?
08 Feb 00 |  Middle East
Analysis: Gloves off in Lebanon
27 Feb 00 |  Middle East
French PM lashed over 'blunder'
11 Feb 00 |  Middle East
Analysis: Dilemma facing Israeli army
23 Feb 00 |  Middle East
Arab League support for bombed Lebanon
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