Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz told Israel Radio on Wednesday that the right-wing cabinet had agreed to double the current settler population of 17,000 to solidify its hold over the Golan before opening any peace negotiations with Syria. 

Syria on Wednesday denounced the Israeli plan which stipulates the construction of 900 new homes on the strategic plateau.

Isa Daweesh, Syria's deputy foreign minister, told reporters in Damascus: "There is no recognition for this measure. Israel is deluded that it can achieve something by relying on power and occupation." 

Asked if Israel's move was a step to preempt any future peace negotiations between the two countries, he said: "Conflicts are not resolved through power, they should be resolved under international law."

French reaction

Responding to the Israeli announcement, France urged the Jewish state to immediately abandon its plans. 

"The approval by an Israeli interministerial commission of the
extension of Jewish settlements in the Golan Heights can only
complicate" the resumption of talks between Israel and Syria, said foreign ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous on Wednesday.

"France thus immediately calls on Israel not to implement these plans and not to take any other decisions that could compromise the peace process," Ladsous told reporters.

The Palestinian factor

The Golan Heights has  been
 relatively violence free

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, like his late long-ruling father Hafiz al-Asad, has demanded a total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan in exchange for peace and has urged Washington to help revive talks with Israel that collapsed in early 2000. 

"The government decision is a response to the initiative of Syria, which said it is interested in peace while openly supporting Palestinian terror," Katz told Israel's largest daily Yedioth Ahronoth. 

Senior Israeli Labour MP Haim Ramon charged that "the only goal of the (settlement) plan was to torpedo any chance of new negotiations with Syria." 

Katz himself admitted to the radio: "One of my goals is also to
make sure Asad wakes up every morning to watch a thriving Israeli Golan from his presidential palace."

Syria denies the Israeli charge, saying Palestinian armed groups with a presence in Damascus have information offices
only. 

The Heights

"One of my goals is also to make sure Asad wakes up every morning to watch a thriving Israeli Golan from his presidential palace."

Yisrael Katz, Agriculture Minister

Israel conquered the Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in 1981, a move condemned internationally.

Israel and Syria have no diplomatic relations and remain in a technical state of war. However, the Golan Heights has been relatively violence free in the past decades, in contrast with the frequents attacks and retaliation from both sides in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

The Golan is a grassy plateau with important wells and springs as well as being of strategic value, as it overlooks northeastern Israel including the Sea of Galilee, a major tourist draw.

Right-wing ministers in Israel's cabinet fiercely oppose any
negotiations over the territory. Katz, the plan's initiator and head of the cabinet's settlement committee, told Israel Radio: "It is good for everyone to know that Israel has no intention to loosen its hold on the Golan, but exactly the opposite."