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Sharon: Peace would require leaving Golan

JERUSALEM -- Addressing two of Israel's thorniest issues, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told lawmakers yesterday that peace with Syria would require a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights and ordered a review of the contentious West Bank separation barrier.

Sharon's comments on the Golan, made to parliament's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, were an unprecedented admission by the career hard-liner. In the past, right-wing Israeli governments insisted a peace deal could be reached without a withdrawal from the strategic plateau captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

The prime minister did not tell the closed-door meeting whether he was willing to pay what he defined as the price for peace. However, one committee member said it was clear from the context that Sharon is not ready to return the Golan in exchange for peace.

Also yesterday, the Hamas founder announced a change in strategy, saying the Islamic militant group would increasingly recruit female suicide bombers. Last week, Hamas sent its first female assailant, a 22-year-old who blew herself up at the Gaza-Israel crossing and killed four Israeli border guards.

Sheik Ahmed Yassin told reporters in Gaza there had previously not been a need for women to carry out bombings. Now, he said, women must step up and fulfill their "obligations." He suggested male bombers were increasingly being held back by Israeli security measures.

Sharon's meeting with the parliamentary committee came at a sensitive time.

Israel is preparing to defend the security barrier next month before the world court in The Hague, Netherlands. The government is also considering how to react to offers by Syrian President Bashar Assad to restart peace talks, which broke down in 2000.

In an interview published yesterday in the London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Assad appeared pessimistic about the chances of talks with Sharon.

"From the beginning and until this moment, the US administration did not wish to throw itself into the peace process. As for Sharon . . . it is hard for him to succeed on a peace platform," Assad said.

Meanwhile, Israel blamed Syria for an attack by Hezbollah militants yesterday at the Israeli-Lebanese border that killed one Israeli soldier and wounded two others, one seriously.

Syria is widely believed to support Hezbollah.

The militant group said the bulldozer had crossed the border into Lebanon, but Israeli commander Major General Benny Gantz

said the bulldozer was clearing land on the Israeli side when it was attacked.

Sharon was asked by a lawmaker at yesterday's committee meeting whether now is a good time to renew talks with Syria, said Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin. "No one should have any illusions. The price of peace with Syria is leaving the Golan Heights," Gissin quoted the prime minister as saying.

Ran Cohen, a committee member from the left-wing Meretz Party, said Sharon suggested such a pullback would be too much for Israel to bear.

At the meeting, Sharon also said he has asked governmental committees to review the separation barrier, a senior official said.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the government has asked committees to study possible changes in the route as well as technical means of easing movement for Palestinians.

Israel says the 440-mile barrier, which is one-quarter built, protects against suicide bombers and other attackers. But the barrier has severely disrupted the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinians, separating them from their farmland, jobs, hospitals, and schools.

Any changes would be applied to existing parts of the structure, the official said. One of its most controversial elements -- a section extending 25 miles into the West Bank to enclose four Jewish settlements -- has yet to be built.

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