Israel to Double Number of Golan Heights Settlers

Israel (searchhas approved a plan to spend at least $56 million to double the number of settlers living on the occupied Golan Heights (search), aiming to strengthen Israel's hand ahead of possible peace talks with Syria (search), officials said Wednesday.

The decision came as a Druze member of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party, Majli Wehbeh, was reportedly preparing to travel to Damascus to look into President Bashar Assad's recent call for the renewal of peace negotiations.

Israel appeared to be sending mixed messages in response to Assad's overtures, first made in a New York Times interview. Some Israeli officials, including Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, have said Israel should consider Assad's offer. Others are skeptical of the Syrian president's intentions.

In response to Assad's remarks, Sharon said this week that Syria must crack down on terror groups operating from its territory. Islamic Jihad and Hamas have offices in Damascus.

Sharon indicated that Israel would not comply with any Syrian condition that Israel agree in principle to give up the Golan -- a strategic plateau captured from Syria in 1967 -- prior to the opening of talks between the bitter enemies.

Although Israel has annexed the Golan, Sharon's predecessor, Ehud Barak, came close to returning the area in peace talks in 2000 but the two sides couldn't agree on the final details.

Under the Israeli expansion plan, Israel will double the number of residents living on the Golan within three years, said Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, who initiated the project.

About 10,000 settlers currently live in the Golan, the Yediot Ahronot newspaper reported on Wednesday. The 640-square-mile area was used by Syria prior to 1967 to bombard the northern area of Israel. According to Katz's plan, nine new communities will be established.

Katz called Assad an "archterrorist" and said the plan had been developed in light of Assad's offer for the renewal of talks in an effort raise the price of giving up the Golan in any negotiations.

"There is no dialogue with the Syrians," Katz told Israel Radio. "This is an Israeli decision that the Golan Heights is an integral part of the state of Israel and we don't have any intention of giving up our hold."

A lawmaker from the opposition Labor Party, Haim Ramon, said the decision made "no sense" and would only strengthen Syria's support for terror groups.

"If you don't want negotiations, just say that you don't," Ramon said.

Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said the Golan expansion has been in the works for several years now. He said the latest government decision was the final approval necessary to push forward with the project.

Gissin also disputed the report of Wehbeh's visit to Damascus. He said Wehbeh did not represent the prime minister.

Wehbeh told The Associated Press Wednesday that he would soon be traveling to Egypt. He declined to comment on the report in the Lebanese daily Al Balad.

The paper quoted him as saying that he would soon travel to Damascus at Assad's invitation.

Wehbeh would not give details, but the daily said that he would travel first to Egypt and then to Damascus, where he would meet with Walid Al Mouallam, Syria's former representative at the United Nations.

Wehbeh is Druze, an offshoot of Islam that has a large community in Syria.

Syria and Israel are technically at war, but their border has been mostly quiet since the end of the 1967 war.

Since then, their conflict played out mainly in neighboring Lebanon, where Syria holds sway and backs the anti-Israeli guerrilla movement Hezbollah.