Page last updated at 13:24 GMT, Friday, 10 July 2009 14:24 UK

Israel must stay 'deep in Golan'

Golan Heights (file pic)
The Golan Heights are militarily strategic and a key water source

An aide to Israel's prime minister has said Israel must keep a large part of the Golan Heights, rejecting Syria's major demand for a peace deal.

The previous government held indirect talks with Syria, assumed to be based on returning the Golan Heights, occupied in 1967, in return for peace.

In June, Syrian President Bashar Assad said there was no partner for talks on the Israeli side.

Correspondents say the aide's comments will serve to reinforce this view.

Syria has remained in a state of war with Israel since its 1948 foundation.

Israel took control of the Golan Heights, a strategic mountainous area now popular with Israeli holidaymakers, during the 1967 Six Day War.

'Integral role'

The comments come amid a thaw in relations between the US and Syria.

US President Barack Obama has sent envoys on a series of visits, and Mr Assad recently invited the US president himself to Damascus.

Golan Heights map

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell recently visited Syria and said Damascus had an "integral role" in finding peace in the region.

But the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands to the right of his predecessor, Ehud Olmert.

Correspondents say the new government's emerging position makes an Israeli-Syrian deal look unlikely.

"The position is that, if there is a territorial compromise, it is one that still leaves Israel on the Golan Heights and deep into the Golan Heights," the aide, Uzi Arad, said in an interview with Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

He said the Israeli government was willing to resume negotiations with "no prior conditions", but Israeli control of parts of the territory was necessary for "strategic, military and land-settlement reasons... needs of water, wine and landscape".

Syria wants the entire territory back.

The Golan Heights is currently home to about 18,000 Israeli settlers and another 17,000 Syrian Druze.

Israel unilaterally annexed the heights in 1981, in a move that has not been recognised internationally.

All settlements on occupied land are illegal under international law.

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