In a series of stunningly rapid parliamentary moves just hours after Prime Minister Menachem Begin left a hospital and convened an emergency Cabinet meeting, Israel tonight annexed the occupied Syrian Golan Heights and asserted its perpetual sovereignty over the territory it captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
The surprise Cabinet decision to push through the annexation law came two hours after Begin returned home to recuperate from a broken hip joint. Israeli officials emphatically denied that the step was timed to coincide with the diversion of international attention toward the crisis in Poland.
The prime minister, in a dramatic wheelchair appearance before the Knesset (parliament) tonight, said he decided to act on Israel's longstanding and oft-declared intentions to annex the Golan Heights because of a recent escalation of "extremist" positions by Syria. Begin emphasized that the annexation move has been inevitable for years, and should have come as a surprise to no one.
Stunned members of parliament, voting in the face of a boycott by most members of the opposition Labor Party approved the Cabinet decision in a preliminary vote 60 to 17. Most members of the opposition refused to participate in the vote, not because of any objection to applying Israeli sovereignty to the Golan, but because of the manner in which the measure was rushed through a marathon Knesset session. The Labor Party has long supported in principle annexation of the Golan Heights,
In a subsequent, final vote that made the annexation bill law, the Knesset voted 63 to 21, after rejecting proposed amendments that would have declared Israel's willingness to negotiate peace with Syria any time.
Egypt immediately condemned the annexation move, calling it "illegal" and a setback for negotiations for a comprehensive Middle East peace.
The Egyptian ambassador to Israel, Saad Mortada, said in Tel Aviv that "the unilateral decision by Israel to apply the Israeli law to the Golan Heights is tantamount to annexation of this territory against the rules and norms of international law, of the United Nations Charter, the Hague regulations and against the Fourth Geneva Convention."
Mortada added, "The decision, which is not compatible with the spirit of Camp David, does not serve positively the sincere efforts and good intentions of both Egypt and Israel to establish a comprehensive and just peace in the area."
But, the Egyptian ambassador said, the annexation should not stand in the way of continued Israeli-Egyptian negotiations for normalization of relations and for the proposed autonomy for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The United States deplored the annexation yesterday as a blow to peace efforts in the Middle East. White House and State Department spokesmen expressed "deep concern" and "opposition" to the Israeli moves. Details on Page A15
Begin told the Knesset tonight that not only did he not consult with U.S. officials beforehand, he also never considered doing so because "no one will dictate our lives to us, not even the United States . . ."
Begin added, "No one, no people, no power will succeed in pushing us back to those pre-1967 borders of bloodshed and provocation."
Begin said that recent events in the Arab world -- not the diversion of attention by Poland -- prompted his decision to bring the issue to a Knesset vote.
"There can be, in our country or beyond its borders, no serious person who has studied the history of the land of Israel who would attempt to deny that for many generations the Golan Heights were an integral part of the land of Israel," Begin declared.
Moreover, he added, between 1948 and 1967, when Israel occupied the Golan Heights, Syrian artillery units had used the topographical advantage of the heights to turn the lives of Israeli farmers in the Galilee Valley into "hell . . . a reign of blood and terror."
Historical and security justifications aside, Begin said, Israel was finally making the move to incorporate the 500 square miles of the Golan Heights into Israeli territory from a "moral-political aspect" based on Syria's constant refusal to recognize the existence of the Jewish state.
At the recent Arab League summit in Fez, Morocco, Begin said, Syria had led a move to reject the eight-point Saudi Arabian peace plan for the Middle East because it hinted at recognition of Israel. Yesterday, Begin said, Syrian President Hafez Assad underlined that "rejectionist" stand by saying that even if the Palestine Liberation Organization recognizes Israel, Syria will not.
The annexation bill in its legal terminology applies Israeli law to the occupied territory. Until today's move Syrian law had been applied there by the Israeli military administration.
Begin's decision to push the Golan annexation bill caught the opposition parties, and even most members of Begin's own Cabinet, by surprise. Even before he was discharged from Hadassah Hospital for three weeks of recuperation at home, Begin summoned Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and informed them of his decision.
When he was driven home at noon, Begin convened his Cabinet and, after a 90-minute discussion, won approval of the annexation.
The prime minister was wheeled into the Knesset chamber to his usual position at the Cabinet table and, in a voice rising with emotion, unleashed a bitter attack on Syria for waging 33 years of uninterrupted warfare on Israel.
Referring to sporadic shelling of Galilee settlers during the 19 years Syrian guns were positioned on the Golan Heights, Begin said, "The Syrians turned the lives of tens of thousands of civilians into hell. Spurred on by their deep and abiding hatred they would open fire, from the heights, on our towns and villages, instituting a reign of blood and terror throughout the area. Their targets were men, women and children, and the attacks took their toll in killed and wounded . . . " Indeed, our children in the thousands were to be found in the shelters, at times not for a day or a week but for months on end, without seeing the light of day."
Since then, Begin said, Israel had repeatedly made efforts to negotiate peace with Syria, but had been answered by Syrian declarations that Israel would be liquidated.
Following the speech, Knesset member Geula Cohen, of the ultranationalist Tehiya (Renaissance) Party rushed up to the Cabinet table and kissed Begin. Later, Cohen, who last March spearheaded an unsuccessful annexation bill, said her party would begin a movement to annex the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which also were occupied by Israel in the 1967 war.
Following Begin's speech, David Kimche, director-general of the Foreign Ministry, said that since the decision had been made long ago to annex the Golan Heights, and was incorporated in the platform of Begin's Likud Party, today's moves should not be considered as breaking new ground.
"What we did today we did after a lengthy period of increasing frustration at seeing a growing extremism of the Syrians with regard to any possibility of peace talks with us. We have repeatedly, officially and unofficially, made efforts to reach a form in which we could have peace talks with Syria," Kimche said.
When asked why the moves were made today, Kimche replied, "The prime minister was discharged from the hospital. The prime minister is a man who likes to act when the time is right, but having time in the hospital to go over the whole move, the moment he came out was when he felt the time was right."
Kimche said Israel had reached a "stage of saturation" with warlike Syrian statements, and that the rejection at Fez of the Saudi Arabian peace plan and, later, Assad's rejection of any possibility of recognizing Israel were both watersheds.
When asked if the timing of the Cabinet decision was based on an attempt to capitalize on the diversion of world attention toward Poland, Kimche replied, "I can assure you quite categorically that the problem of Poland has absolutely nothing to do with the timing of the decision."
Kimche said that while the letter of the resolution addresses only Israel's intent to apply Israeli law in the Golan, Begin had made it clear that the Heights would forever remain part of "the land of Israel." He said details, such as whether the 12,500 former Syrian Druze living in the Golan will be offered citizenship, will be worked out later by the government. There are currently also 6,651 Israeli settlers living in 31 settlements in the Golan Heights.
Kimche said Israel would also have to study the question of whether the U.N. peace-keeping force presently deployed along the Syrian-Israeli disengagement line would be allowed to remain. "We won't necessarily ask them to leave," he said.
When asked if there was any connection between the annexation move and the continued deployment of Syrian missiles in central Lebanon, Kimche said," there is no direct connection, but the fact that Syria moved in the missiles, the fact that they have repeatedly snubbed efforts by U.S. special envoy Philip Habib and the fact that they have played up extremist attitudes contributed to the decision."
In response to a question, Kimche said he does not expect Syria to become less extreme in its position because of the annexation, but he added, "At least we have assured the continued security of our northern border." He called the annexation "a new reality as one must see it today."