Who gets the Golan?

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the Israel correspondent for the New Republic.

The Israeli mainstream, so the truism here goes, is so desperate for peace that, in the end, it will overcome misgivings over relinquishing territory and mistrust of Arab intentions and endorse any diplomatic initiative aimed at solving the Middle East conflict. After all, the majority of Israelis have supported every withdrawal so far -- from the Sinai desert in 1982 to the pullout from Gaza in 2005. And according to polls, a majority of Israelis are prepared to leave most of the West Bank and create a Palestinian state.

But that willingness to relinquish territory for peace -- or even a respite -- ends with the Golan Heights, which Israel won in the 1967 Six-Day War and whose fate Israel and Syria are negotiating. By an overwhelming majority, Israelis oppose ceding the Golan to Syria, even in exchange for a promise of peace from Damascus. So does a majority of the Israeli parliament, along with most Cabinet members from the governing party, Kadima.

One reason is that few here believe that the regime of Bashar Assad will honor an agreement. No Arab state has consistently shown greater hostility to Israel than Syria. The Palestinian terrorist movement Hamas is headquartered in Damascus; Syria is Iran’s leading Arab ally. Without a Syrian attempt to convince the Israeli public of its benign intentions, domestic opposition will stymie any attempt by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to cede the Golan to Assad. And the prospects for a convincing Syrian overture are almost nonexistent.


The Middle East conflict has produced two models of Arab peacemakers. The first was former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who realized that the key to resolving the conflict was psychological. The Israeli public needed to be convinced that, in exchange for concrete concessions, it would win legitimacy from the Arab world. And so Sadat flew to Jerusalem, addressed the Israeli parliament and announced that Egypt welcomed Israel into the Middle East. The result was an Israeli pullback from every last inch of Sinai.

The second model was former Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who, rather than prepare his people for peace, assured them that Israel was an illegitimate state destined to disappear. And when Israel offered the Palestinians a state, Arafat’s response was a war of suicide bombings. The result was an indefinite deferment of statehood.

Grudging and suspicious, Assad reminds Israelis far more of Arafat than of Sadat. So far, Assad has refused even to hold direct negotiations with Israel, preferring Turkish interlocutors. Give me the Golan, he is in effect saying, and then we’ll see what kind of peace develops between us.

But Israelis are hardly in a rush to part with one of the most beloved areas of their country. For Israelis, the Golan Heights, with its empty hills and vineyards, is more Provence than Gaza. Unlike the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, the Golan poses no moral or demographic dilemmas. Here there is no occupation of another people; barely 20,000 Druze, and an equal number of Jews, share the nearly 700-square-mile area.

Under Syrian control before the 1967 war, the Golan was Israel’s most volatile border. Many here still recall the years when Syrian soldiers on the Golan routinely shot at Israeli civilians in the Galilee below. After 1967, though, the Golan became Israel’s most placid border. Israelis sense that, for the sake of quiet if not formal peace, it is far better to have their soldiers overlooking Syria than for Syrian soldiers to be once again looking down on the Galilee.

Israeli advocates of a Golan withdrawal argue that Syria may be enticed to sever its ties with Iran as part of a peace agreement. Neutralizing a potential Syrian front in a future Middle East war -- with Iran, say -- would be a major gain for Israel, which is why much of the Israeli strategic community supports negotiations. Syria, though, continues to affirm the primacy of its alliance with Iran. And, during a visit this week to Tehran, Syrian Defense Minister Hassan Turkmany reinforced that message by signing a security agreement with Iran.


Two Israeli leaders, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, tried and failed in the 1990s to reach an agreement with Bashar’s father, the late Syrian leader Hafez Assad. Though both Rabin and Barak agreed to a full withdrawal from the Golan, the Syrians demanded more: several hundred yards of shorefront on the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s main freshwater source, which the Syrians had seized from Israel before 1967. When Rabin and Barak refused to allow Hafez Assad to fulfill his stated dream of again dipping his feet into the Sea of Galilee, negotiations collapsed.

The current negotiations will almost certainly fail too. In fact, possessing the Golan is hardly Assad’s top priority. Instead, Assad has two more pressing interests: evading an international tribunal investigating the Syrian government’s complicity in the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and deflecting attention from the intensifying domination of Lebanon by the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah alliance. Negotiations with Israel -- regardless of whether they actually succeed -- help Assad achieve both goals, by deflecting world attention from the destruction of Lebanese sovereignty and by transforming him from pariah to peacemaker.

Israel’s Olmert hopes that peace negotiations will deflect attention from his own woes -- allegations of corruption dating in part from his days as Jerusalem’s mayor. Other Israelis, though, are wondering how helping Assad destroy Lebanon and escape justice can possibly be confused for Israel’s national interest, let alone for a peace process.