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The BBC's Hilary Andersson reports
"For Ehud Barak this is bad"
 real 28k

The BBC's Paul Adams reports
"The bill is designed to neutralise the effect of Israeli Arabs on a referendum"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 1 March, 2000, 14:08 GMT
Syria peace blow for Barak
Golan Heights
Syria wants Israel to return the Golan Heights
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has suffered a serious setback in his efforts to forge peace with Syria.

Middle East
His coalition government has failed to block an opposition-sponsored bill that correspondents say would make it very difficult to get a peace treaty with Syria approved in a referendum.

The measure was given preliminary parliamentary approval by 60 votes to 53 and one abstention - with some of Mr Barak's right-wing coalition partners voting in favour.


No parliamentary trick will stop the nation from deciding its future

Ehud Barak
Since taking office, Mr Barak has promised the Israeli people that any peace deal with Syria would be put to a referendum.

The opposition bill, which faces three more readings, would require a majority of registered voters to back any referendum, and not simply a majority of votes cast.

The BBC's Paul Adams in Jerusalem says it is Mr Barak's most serious political blow since taking office last summer.

He says the fact that coalition members voted against Mr Barak casts doubt on the future of the government.

Israeli Arabs

A combative Mr Barak predicted, however, that the bill would be overturned in future readings.

"No parliamentary trick will stop the nation from deciding its future by the majority of those who participate in a referendum," he told reporters after the defeat.

"I will continue to work for peace and the majority of voters will support me in the referendum."

The bill was sponsored by Silvan Shalom of the opposition Likud Party, who acknowledged that he was trying to block a withdrawal from all of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

"A majority of the people opposes a withdrawal from the Golan," he said.

But Justice Minister Yossi Beilin attacked the bill as "racist".

He said it was a means to ensure that the votes of Israel's Arab minority - some 20% of the population - would not hold the balance in a decision to give up occupied land for peace.

Talks

The drama unfolded amid rumours of a resumption of peace talks with Damascus after seven weeks of deadlock.

US-hosted talks between the two countries were suspended in January after a four-year break.

Disagreement centred on the extent of any handover of the Golan, which Syria wants back in its entirety as a precondition for any peace deal.

Further dampening peace hopes was fresh violence in Lebanon, where a bomb planted by Hezbollah guerrillas killed five pro-Israeli militiamen.

Mr Barak has promised a troop pull-out from Israel's self-declared occupation zone in southern Lebanon by July.

He would like to conclude a peace with Syria by then as a way of ensuring an orderly withdrawal.

Israel says Syria - the largest power in Lebanon - holds effective veto power over Hezbollah operations.

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See also:

05 Jan 00 |  Middle East
The Golan: Territory and security
10 Dec 99 |  Middle East
Israel divided over Golan Heights
29 Feb 00 |  Middle East
Waiting for the thaw
27 Feb 00 |  Middle East
Israel plays down peace prospects
12 Jan 00 |  Middle East
Barak: Golan deal 'in months'
15 Dec 99 |  Middle East
Analysis: The Lebanon factor
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