Israelis in Golan See Cloud Over Future as Talks Begin


Nothing has actually changed, Ehud Rostoker tries to tell himself. Israel and Syria have not yet made peace, and this scenic, strategic plateau, with its fertile soil and sweeping views, is still firmly in Israel’s hands.

But Rostoker, a genial kibbutznik, says he has no illusions about what’s ahead as Israel and Syria launch landmark peace talks in Washington today: an end, at last, to 50 years of enmity between the two nations, followed by the inevitable price of that peace--a wrenching uprooting for him and the thousands of other Israelis who have settled on the Golan Heights since 1967, when Israel captured the territory from Syria.

Already, the 49-year-old computer specialist says, his head and his heart are at war.

“Intellectually, I hope the talks are short, to the point and succeed,” said Rostoker, who has lived in this tiny community since 1974. “When it comes time to vote [on a peace agreement], I’ll vote for it. But on an emotional level, I feel like I’m in a blender.”


For the 17,000 Israeli residents of the Golan Heights, a 476-square-mile swath of territory that stretches northeast from the Sea of Galilee, these are tumultuous times. The region they hold dear, a verdant land dotted with cattle farms, vineyards and cherry and apple trees, will be at the center of today’s discussions between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh, the highest-level direct talks ever between officials of the two countries.

Syrian President Hafez Assad wants the plateau back, and Barak has left little doubt that he would agree to hand over all or most of it in exchange for security guarantees and normal diplomatic relations with the Arab state.

Caught by surprise by President Clinton’s sudden announcement last week that intensive peace talks would resume after a stalemate of nearly four years, Golan residents are struggling to take stock and determine their course of action.

A few, like Rostoker, who leans to the political left, say that emotionally painful though it is, they will support the government’s negotiating effort, believing that Syria, which held out for the return of the Golan for 32 years, will never make peace without it. Polls show that about 25% of Golan residents, and about half of all Israelis, support the idea of a peace agreement with Syria, even if that means giving up the Golan.

Other residents are quietly resigned, convinced that the loss of the territory and their homes is all but inevitable, yet hoping that a deal with the Syrians will take months or years to complete. Some take comfort in Barak’s promise to present any agreement to Israelis in a national referendum.

And many others vow to fight vociferously against any peace accord that includes the transfer of the Golan to Syria and the uprooting of the 33 Israeli settlements that have been built on the occupied land. They are organizing, raising funds and planning to launch a public relations campaign that will remind Israelis how beloved the Golan is and how hard the nation battled for it in the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973.


“We are not giving up,” said Sami Bar-Lev, the mayor of Katsrin, the largest Israeli community in the Golan. “We will fight in any democratic way possible, but it is clear that it is the government that is threatening us with aggression and expulsion, not the other way around. We will not go like lambs to the slaughter.”

That point was underlined this week with the defiant inauguration of a new neighborhood of 320 homes in Katsrin. The ceremony had been planned for January, when infrastructure work is scheduled to be completed, but was moved up after Clinton’s announcement in order to show that construction and “normal life” continue in the territory, Bar-Lev says.

The mayor, who presided over a ribbon-cutting ceremony Sunday that featured flag-waving children and patriotic songs, said Golan residents are not opposed to peace with Syria.

“But anyone thinking that peace is compatible with the uprooting of people does not know what he is talking about,” he told the crowd. “We are Israeli citizens with rights equal to those of anyone else. No one has the right to drive us from our homes.”

After the ceremony, resident Yossi Grossman, who has lived in his new Katsrin home for nearly a year, sat on his porch--behind a large “The People Are With the Golan” banner on his chain-link fence--and spoke of his anxiety about the government’s decision to renew talks with Syria.

Grossman said he has had difficulty sleeping since the announcement.

“I wake up, go outside to my balcony and gaze out at the landscape,” the 52-year-old teacher said glumly. The prospect of giving it up “all seems so close and tangible now.”


Rostoker, a former Canadian who is the computer specialist for his small kibbutz on the southern Golan, is troubled too, aware that many people he knows will feel obliged to fight against any withdrawal even as he speaks out in support.

“We’ll be washed with emotion here, and feelings will be very raw,” he said.

But Rostoker says there is a feeling among many of the Golan’s moderate to leftist settlers that they cannot remain silent, that they must speak up in favor of the peace process, even if its success will mean relinquishing the homes they love.

“It’s part of the schizophrenia,” he said.

Ilit Eitam, a mother of eight who moved to the Golan with her husband 20 years ago, says she feels betrayed by the talk of returning the territory to Syria.

“We came here on the mission of the nation,” said Eitam, sitting in the kitchen of her home in the religious community of Nov. “We didn’t want villas or to make money. We worked, and we built everything here with our hands because our state told us it was the most important thing to do. Now the nation wants to say, ‘Thank you very much, we don’t need you anymore.’ But we say, ‘No.’ We are not puppets.”

On Tuesday, American and Israeli officials involved in planning for the Washington talks sought to lower expectations for the initial two days of discussions, cautioning that an immediate breakthrough is unlikely. Instead, the preliminary worry of the American organizers reportedly was whether Shareh and Barak would agree to shake hands in public before beginning their negotiations.

But in Israel, one might have been forgiven for thinking that the talks had already succeeded and that the two sides had reached an accord, with Israeli journalists, along with supporters and opponents of the peace effort, referring to “the agreement” and “the withdrawal” from the Golan, as if the plans already existed.


Most of the public discussion so far has involved the referendum that Barak has pledged to hold on any peace agreement that involves territorial concessions. The national vote would be the first such referendum in Israel’s history. Lawmakers have not yet determined how the ballot question would be worded, who would draft it, how to finance the publicity campaigns that would precede it and whether a simple majority would suffice on such a significant issue.

The stage is set for months of emotional debate.

“The referendum threatens to wreck friendships and tear apart families,” the Haaretz newspaper said in an editorial this week.

Each side already has held its first demonstration, with competing rallies on Monday in Jerusalem, as the Israeli parliament conducted a lengthy debate over Barak’s trip to Washington.