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Barak Reassures Israelis Peace Will Preserve National Security

By Lee Hockstader

Returning home to face a gathering political storm, Prime Minister Ehud Barak assured Israelis Tuesday night that any concessions he makes in a peace deal with Syria will be matched by guarantees to protect the Jewish state’s security and water sources.

In back-to-back television interviews, Barak acknowledged the formidable and apparently growing public opposition to prospects that Israel might reach a peace agreement that commits it to give back the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967 and home to 17,000 Israelis. But the Israeli leader, projecting self-assurance and resolve, stressed that when there is a deal, a majority of Israelis, including some of the 100,000 or more who demonstrated Monday in Tel Aviv, will vote yes in the nationwide referendum he has promised to hold.

“I know that if we bring the agreement that I intend to bring, which will strengthen security, bring the boys home from Lebanon, make openings to the Arab world and raise to a higher level the military capability and early warning systems of the army, many, many of these worried people will vote for the agreement,” he said,

The Israeli premier also urged Israelis to ignore the demeanor of the chief Syrian negotiator, Foreign Minister Farouk Chaara, who has infuriated people here by refusing publicly to shake Barak’s hand.

“It’s clear to everybody that even President Assad will have to see us and have to make the decision and also to shake hands,” he said, referring to the Syrian leader, Hafez Assad. “If we can’t reach an agreement there won’t be any value to the question of whether we sat with him 10 times or hugged him seven times. All this is of minor importance compared to the question of whether it is or isn’t possible to guarantee a different future for the state of Israel through regional peace treaties.”

Barak spoke on Israel’s two major evening news programs barely four hours after arriving at Ben-Gurion airport, following a week of intensive talks in Shepherdstown, W.Va. He returns for the next round of talks in the United States next Wednesday, and the premier clearly intends to use this next week to chip away at the suspicion and opposition to a deal that has mounted in his absence.