Army Chief: Israel Doesn't Need Golan Heights

Israel would not endanger its security by giving up the Golan Heights (search) in exchange for peace with Syria, Israel's army chief said in remarks published Friday, departing from the military's traditional view that Israel needs at least part of the plateau as a buffer.

Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon spoke a day after Vice Premier Ehud Olmert (search) indicated that Israel will have to evacuate more Israeli settlements in the West Bank than the four mentioned in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search ) plan of "unilateral disengagement" from the Palestinians.

As part of the plan, Israel would withdraw from all of the Gaza Strip (search) and the four West Bank (search ) settlements by the end of 2005.

Also Friday, an Israeli guard at a West Bank settlement was killed in an ambush. Other guards then killed the Palestinian gunman.

Israel has long argued that giving up the Golan, which it captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed in 1981, could leave northern Israel vulnerable to Syrian attack.

In failed peace talks with Syria, Sharon's moderate predecessor, Ehud Barak (search ), offered to withdraw from virtually all of the heights, but insisted on special security arrangements and some border adjustments.

However, Yaalon suggested that from a military point of view, Israel could afford to withdraw to the pre-1967 lines, a key Syrian demand.

"If you ask me, theoretically, if we can reach an agreement with Syria ... my answer is that from a military standpoint it is possible to reach an agreement by giving up the Golan Heights," Yaalon told the daily Yediot Ahronot.

"The army is able to defend any border. This is correct for any political decision that is taken in Israel," he said.

The last round of Israeli-Syrian peace talks collapsed in 2000, with Syrians insisting on a complete withdrawal from the Golan, and Israel seeking border adjustments near Israel's Sea of Galilee, at the foot of the plateau.

Last year, Syria made overtures indicating it wanted to resume talks. However, Israel says Syria must first end its support for Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Palestinian radicals it hosts in Syria itself.

Yaalon warned that Syria still represents a threat to Israel's security and that the two counties could once again find themselves engaged in a war.

"I can't ignore the scenario in which an escalation on the Lebanese front leads to a confrontation between the two armies," he said.

Yaalon noted that Syria has "missiles that put all of Israel in range and chemical capabilities."

Sharon's aides had no comment on Yaalon's remarks. In the past, Sharon has opposed a complete withdrawal from the Golan.

Meanwhile, Sharon's vice premier, Olmert, indicated that Israel will leave much of the West Bank after it exits Gaza next year.

Olmert spoke Thursday during a tour of a section of the separation barrier Israel is building along and in the West Bank to keep Palestinian attackers out.

His office quoted him as saying that Israel would have to evacuate more settlements because of international pressure and Israel's own desire to remain a Jewish state.

It was one of the clearest indications yet from an Israeli leader that the disengagement might be only the first phase of a future Israeli pullback from most of the West Bank, to make room for a Palestinian state.

Later, Olmert clarified his remarks by saying further withdrawals would not take place soon. "Certainly it is not on the agenda now," he told Israel TV.

Olmert, a leading member of Sharon's Likud party, said even the United States, Israel's main ally, wants an Israeli withdrawal from almost all of the West Bank, and that would mean removing settlements to reduce friction with the international community.

"If we don't do this, we will pay a very tough price," his office quoted him as saying.

While about 8,000 settlers live in Gaza, more than 230,000 live in 150 West Bank settlements. Sharon has said that one goal of the plan is to solidify Israel's hold on the main West Bank settlement blocs, implying that settlements outside the blocs would be expendable.

Friday's shooting attack took place near the settlement of Itamar.

The gunman ambushed a car driving near the entrance to the settlement, seriously wounding a security guard who died on the way to hospital, the army said.

The gunman tried to flee with the guard's rifle but was killed by other guards from the settlement, the army said.

Palestinian sources identified the gunman as Yussef Ahmed Hanani, 27, a Palestinian police officer from the nearby village of Beit Furik. It was not clear if he was affiliated with a militant group.