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Israel should not close the door on the possibility of talks with Syria, said Defense Minister Amir Peretz, even as he urged the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to take the military threat it posed seriously.
"We have to take the militant words of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad seriously," said Peretz, who added that he is prepared for any military scenario involving Syria.
Still, he told them of his belief that at the end of the day, the only solution to the hostilities between Israel and Syria is a diplomatic one.
He added that a "high price" would have to be paid for this diplomatic solution but did not provide details as to what that would entail. He spoke on the same day that the religious newspaper Hamishpacha released statements by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ruling out a return of the Golan Heights under his administration.
"So long as I am prime minister, the Golan Heights will remain in our hands, as it is an inseparable part of the State of Israel," Olmert was quoted as saying.
Peretz, in his statement to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, did not mention the Golan Heights, but rather focused on the larger significance of Syria to peace in the region.
But MK Effi Eitam (NU-NRP) heard in his words a willingness to give up the Golan Heights and attacked him on this issue. Eitam called on Peretz to drop the subject, dubbing the supposed Golan Heights relinquishment "political stupidity."
"This is a surrender to Syrian threats, and it only frustrates the United States," said Eitam.
Peretz also spoke with the committee about the timetable for the withdrawal of the remaining IDF forces from southern Lebanon. He said Israeli soldiers would not leave until an agreement over the rules of engagement had been worked out among the IDF, the Lebanese army and the international forces that are entering the area.
MK Ran Cohen (Meretz) asked the defense minister whether the troops would be left in Lebanon as "hostages," to which Peretz replied that the IDF would pull out by next week.
Peretz added that until kidnapped soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were released and proper surveillance of the Lebanese-Syrian border put in place, Israel would continue to see UNSC resolution 1701 as "incomplete."
The defense minister also faced an embarrassing moment during the meeting after falsely answering a question. When asked whether Israel was still enforcing a naval blockade in Lebanese waters, Peretz answered affirmatively.
Several MKs retorted that they "were aware of different information," and Peretz's military secretary told him that no such blockade was intact, but rather the navy was only supervising the waters.
Peretz also said Israeli army planes would continue to fly over Lebanon if Israel's security needs warranted it. The IDF, he promised, would continue to respond to further military threats along the border.
In examining the Palestinian threat, he told the committee that 10 suicide bombing attempts were thwarted in the past three weeks.
Peretz also said it was unclear to him whether the specter of a national unity government between Fatah and Hamas was a ploy to subvert the peace process with Israel or an attempt to create a new scenario that would allow for progress with Israel.
JTA contributed to this story.
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