Agence France Presse (AFP)
April 29, 2008 - 5:16pm

Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz on Tuesday said that returning the occupied Golan Heights to Syria would give Iran a foothold in the strategic plateau overlooking northern Israel.

"Any Israeli withdrawal will lead to an Iranian presence on the Golan Heights," Mofaz told Israeli army radio in a telephone interview from Washington, where he was attending an Israeli-American security conference.

"Syria is part of the front of extremists, which means that after any transfer of the Golan, Iran will get a foothold in the Golan, a strategic region," he said.

Israel considers Iran -- a close ally of Syria -- its greatest strategic threat because of its accelerating nuclear programme and remarks by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad predicting the demise of the Jewish state.

Iran insists its nuclear programme is entirely peaceful.

The minister's comments came two days after Israel's ambassador in Ankara raised the possibility of renewing long-frozen peace negotiations with Syria under Turkish mediation.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad revealed last week that Turkey had passed on a message from Israel expressing its readiness to swap the Golan for peace, as Ankara renewed mediation efforts launched last year.

Israel captured the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in 1981 in a move never recognised by the international community.

Syria has consistently demanded the return of the whole of the Golan right down to the shores of the Sea of Galilee -- Israel's main water source -- as its price for peace.

But Israel baulked at the demand in the last peace talks between the two sides which broke down in 2000, and a recent opinion poll found that more than two-thirds of Israelis oppose a complete withdrawal from the territory.


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