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Amid new peace bids, Israel stays tough

Israel has announced a new $56-million program to double the number of settlers in the Golan Heights.

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Whether it was a message to Syria alone, or to the Arab world as a whole, it was not intended to be subtle.

Just weeks after Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad called for an unconditional resumption of peace talks with Israel, Israel has responded with plans for its biggest settlement drive ever in the occupied Golan Heights.

"The idea is that Assad will see from his own window the Israeli Golan Heights thriving and flowering," said Yisrael Katz, the minister of agriculture, of the strategic plateau captured in 1967 and annexed in 1981. He says 900 new homes are to be built in existing and new settlements. The plan would spend at least $56 million to double the region's settler population.

The rebuff to Syria, the ruling out of new negotiating concessions in the West Bank, and official statements point up that despite Israel's strategic bonanza from the United States occupation of Iraq, and resulting winds of change in the region, Israel is adhering to a view of itself as surrounded by a threatening environment. And it remains averse to ceding land.

Critics say the posture is misguided, and potentially perilous.

"There is no real enemy anymore, but unfortunately the strategic thinking has not changed," says Tel Aviv University political scientist Reuven Pedhazur. The army agrees Israel is better off today than before the American occupation of Iraq.

Referring to Libya's agreement to disband unconventional weapons and Iran's agreement to open up nuclear installations, chief of staff Moshe Yaalon, told Yediot Ahronot newspaper last weekend: "The American action in Iraq is beginning to bear fruit in the region. We are seeing a positive domino effect."

But in the same interview, Yaalon dismissed the idea of trimming the military's size and programs. He said this was impossible since a moderate Arab regime could be overthrown, the Iranians may continue to try to acquire nuclear capability, US influence could wane, and Syria still has 4,000 tanks and hundreds of planes.

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