ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | The Golan, Again

The Golan, Again


04 June 2008

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Every few years the issue of peace with Syria and the “known price” (meaning a full Israeli withdrawal from all the Golan Heights) Israel will have to pay resurfaces among Israeli politicians. This happened again two weeks ago. The Golan is of great strategic importance, especially due to its volcanic cones forming a natural defensive line overlooking Syria. This time the background is the faltering Olmert government with the PM suspect of bribe taking, kickbacks, influence peddling, etc. Many are dismissing the whole round of behind the scenes discussions and possible peace with Syria as an attempt by the PM to remain in power by distracting public attention from the real issues of alleged government corruption at the highest levels.

None should be so flippant. The core issues exist despite the political and media hype. Public opinion polls show a consistent 50% or so of the Israeli public opposed to any withdrawal from the Golan with another quarter of the population only favoring a territorial compromise. A vote in the Knesset supposedly would also go against any agreement returning the Golan to Syria in full as Damascus demands. Bashar Assad and his ruling Ba’ath party speak of swimming in the Sea of Galilee in the same manner that Assad’s late father Hafez al-Assad did. Syria has never wavered from its position of demanding the June 4, 1967 borders as the final demarcation to be agreed upon between the two countries. This of course includes relinquishing to Syria lands they captured from Israel in the War of Independence or at least forcing them into demilitarization again. The new border would fall to the west of the international boundary. Whether the international boundary or the June 4 line, Israel’s Hula valley and Sea of Galilee region will be directly under the future Syrian controlled heights.

On the one hand many Israelis have begun to worry while on the other hand others believe nothing will happen. We best take this all very seriously despite the public opinion polls and Olmert’s “weak” political position. Negotiations have dynamics of their own. Imagine for a moment that this government or the next actually present the public with a peace document whereby Syria’s demands are met and Israel is to withdraw completely from the Golan. Israeli demands for an exchange of ambassadors is accepted and Syria completely breaks ties with the Hamas, the Hezbollah, Iran and anyone else who is considered part of the “Axis of Evil”. Assad will even come to Jerusalem. How many will then vote against such an agreement, whether in the Knesset or in a referendum? It will be sold as peace resembling the friendship between the USA and Canada or the relations existing between France and Germany.

Yitzhak Rabin promised the Americans in 1994 that Israel would hand over all the Golan to Syria for a full peace provided Israeli diplomatic and security (full demilitarization of the Golan back to Damascus) demands were met. After Rabin’s assassination Shimon Peres inherited and honored this pledge (1995 -96) as did Likud PM Benyamin Netanyahu (1996 – 99) although with minor alterations. Ariel Sharon (2001 – 06) ignored the Rabin pledge and it never showed up in the Kadima party platform. His successor, Ehud Olmert, breaking with Sharon, is once again honoring Rabin’s commitment. The issues with Syria are long and involved and certainly did not begin with Ehud Olmert’s political and legal problems.

The basic core issue remains as to whether Israel can make peace with Syria, relinquish the Golan and ensure its security. In the age of long range missiles many say battlefield armies do not really matter. But as we learned in the summer of 2006 battling the Hezbollah in Lebanon, missiles will continue to be fired even after the launchers are knocked out by the air force, since they will be replaced immediately. Only the capture of missile sites by the ground forces will put an end to launching them from the same positions. The same can be said for short range rockets and artillery.

Let us assume there is a demilitarized zone (DMZ) on the Syrian side of the border. Just prior to the 1967 Six Day War Egypt violated the Sinai DMZ by removing the UN forces stationed there, mobilizing 100,000 troops, 1000 tanks and 750 artillery pieces to take up positions in Sinai and blocked Israel’s shipping through the Straits of Tiran thereby blockading the port of Eilat. Here were three clear violations of the previous 1957 agreement, any one of them giving Israel the right to go to war. Yet everyone urged restraint including Europe, the USA and Canada. Syria, Jordan and Iraq also mobilized against Israel. In the end Israel was forced into a pre-emptive strike.

Any agreement upon a demilitarized zone on Syria’s side of the border can be violated by Damascus leaving it unclear whether Israel will have the right to take military action. Furthermore Israel might not even be able to mobilize the reserves in time since Syria could remilitarize the Golan in a couple of days being that the whole distance from Damascus to the border is 80 kilometers or 50 miles. Then take into consideration a Syrian first missile strike immobilizing Israel’s army reserve call-up. No doubt a very unpleasant scenario.

But what if Assad is truly serious and really wants peace? Should we miss such an opportunity? The true analysis must relate to Syria and not just Assad. Does Syria as a nation truly want peace? Has the Ba’ath thrown out its pan-Arab ideology including the demand for Israel’s destruction? Possibly. But despite the fact that the Syrian regime is secular one must ask whether the Moslem Brotherhood truly wants peace. They appear to be the most likely successors to Assad and the Ba’athists who are quite despised by the Syrian people.

Any agreement with Syria is a serious risk since an Islamic regime would certainly cancel any agreement with Israel at the time of its choosing. Then what? Would Jewish nationalism be too heavy a burden for the West to support? What other interests would come into play (oil, perhaps)?

We should not expect Syria to break with Hezbollah or Iran nor North Korea. Even should they sever these relations they could easily be reestablished after an Israeli withdrawal from the strategically important Golan Heights whether Assad and the Ba’ath remain in power or there is an Islamist overthrow.

Should Syria ever become a democracy and the will of its people will be for peace with the Jewish State then we can begin discussions for joint development between the two countries, including the Golan Heights.