Netanyahu backing off bill blocking Golan deal

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JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has backed down from legislation that would make it harder to relinquish any of the Golan Heights for peace with Syria.

The bill, which gained preliminary Knesset approval Wednesday of last week, would require a majority of 80 in the 120-member parliament to change the law that annexed the Golan.

Israel captured the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, and Damascus has always said that any peace deal with Israel must include withdrawal from the Golan.

Despite his support for the bill initially, Netanyahu said Thursday of last week that he hoped the bill would be revised in committee.

"I will change this law from 80 legislators to 61," he told Army Radio.

Netanyahu added that a national referendum would be held on any decision on the future of the Golan Heights.

Meanwhile, both Foreign Minister David Levy and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai sharply criticized the bill.

Mordechai said the vote was poorly timed, and Israel should send a message to Syria of its interest in pursuing peace negotiations.

Levy blasted the bill as "unwise" and "damaging" for Israel's international standing when it is already coming under pressure for the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian talks.

The official Syrian press denounced the measure as "another provocation" in a long list of Israeli moves intended to "destroy the peace process."

The Golan bill vote was the first of three necessary for it to become law.