July 9, 2009 - 12:00am

Israel is ready to withdraw from areas of the Golan Heights, but it will not give up large parts of the occupied territory in any peace deal with Syria, a top aide to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

National Security Adviser Uzi Arad also said in an interview with Haaretz newspaper published on Friday that as part of a statehood deal that settles the conflict with the Palestinians, Israel should be granted NATO membership.

Arad said the consensus in Israel was that it must keep a strong presence in the Golan Heights, land captured in 1967 and which Syria wants returned as part of a peace deal, for "strategic, military and land-settlement reasons."

"If there is a territorial compromise, it is one that still leaves Israel on the Golan Heights and deep into the Golan Heights," Arad said, noting also the plateau's water resources.

Netanyahu has said he is ready to hold peace talks with Syria without preconditions, but that any agreement must address Israel's security needs.

Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, held indirect talks with Syria through Turkish mediators, but they were suspended when Netanyahu's right-wing government took office in March.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said last month peace talks could not resume because Israel was not committed to reaching a deal. Turkey has said it was willing to resume mediating the indirect negotiations.

Netanyahu has in the past expressed opposition to Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau of about 1,200 sq. km (460 sq. miles) that also contains important water sources in an otherwise arid region. He offered in May to talk to Syria but indicated he would make no commitments on land.

Arad had expressed, in excerpts of the interview published on Thursday, a deep skepticism about prospects for peace with the Palestinians and questioned whether there was a Palestinian leadership which could deliver.

In further comments published on Friday, Arad said he could not rule out some form of Palestinian state emerging in the next few years -- he mentioned 2015 -- but said that it would be a "fragile structure. A house of cards."

He added that after reaching a statehood deal with the Palestinians, Israel should be granted membership in NATO and a defense alliance with the United States as a "quid pro quo."

When asked about a rare rift between Israel and the United States over Jewish settlement building in the West Bank, Arad said it was necessary keep a tight alliance with its long-time ally while cultivating relations with other powers such as the European Union, Russia, China and India.

In Thursday's preview of the interview, Arad was also quoted as saying Israel must have "tremendously powerful" weapons to deter a nuclear attack or destroy an enemy that dares to launch an atomic strike.

Israel fears that Iran, despite denials from Tehran, is enriching uranium with the aim of producing nuclear weapons.

In the full version published on Friday, Arad said there must be a military option if international diplomatic efforts did not prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms.

"The more credible and concrete the option, the less likely that it will be needed," he said.


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