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World & Nation

Trump’s recognition of an Israeli Golan Heights draws little enthusiasm from those who live there

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Vintner Tal Pelter, left, chats with customers at his boutique winery in the Golan Heights.
(Tracy Wilkinson / Los Angeles Times)

As far as Yoav Levy is concerned, the Golan Heights are Israeli and forever shall be. But that doesn’t mean Levy is applauding President Trump’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the land seized from Syria 52 years ago.

“This will wake up the bear,” said Levy, a vintner who produces $40 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon on his Golan collective farm, Moshav Kidmat Zvi. “And for what?”

“It is provocative,” agreed his companion Yael Pudik.

Many of the estimated 25,000 Israeli Jews who settled in the Golan Heights — as well as some of the roughly same number of Druze Arabs living there — concur that the lush hills, tented date farms and sizable agricultural production here are better off in Israeli hands.

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For one, who would the land be returned to? A Syria devastated and reeling from civil war? Syrian President Bashar Assad, a pariah in much of the world?

What makes them nervous, however, was Trump’s announcement, first on Twitter and then at a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side, declaring the Golan Heights to be Israeli.

Levy and Pudik noted that the 100-mile border between northeast Israel and southwest Syria has remained remarkably peaceful, despite the official rancor between the two nations. And for several years, the Israeli army has helped Syrian refugees by trucking in food and building and staffing a hospital in the demilitarized “no-man’s” zone between the two countries.

Why spoil that? asked Levy, 61, an Israeli-born son of Syrian immigrants. His Bazelet HaGolan winery produces 85,000 bottles a year that win favorable reviews.

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Yoav Levy, left, and Yael Pudik at the Bazelet HaGolan winery in the Golan Heights. Levy wants the Golan to remain in Israeli hands.
(Tracy Wilkinson / Los Angeles Times)

Trump and Netanyahu said declaring Israeli sovereignty, which is illegal under international law and not recognized by most of the world, would make the Golan Heights a more secure bulwark against Lebanese militants who have made inroads into Syria, with Iran’s help.

Many Israelis, along with former U.S. diplomats, believe the real reason is the April 9 Israeli election. Netanyahu, who faces possible indictment on corruption charges, is fighting one of the toughest reelection battles of his long political career. Photo ops and smiling declarations with Trump are an asset in Israel.

Apart from a handful of U.S. members of Congress, however, there had been little pressure to weigh in on the issue of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Because settling land captured by an act of war is considered illegal under the Geneva Convention, the U.S. declaration was condemned by Russia and most of Europe, among others.

Israel views the region — often used as a launching pad for rockets — as vital to its security. That said, past Israeli governments have negotiated to give it back in return for security assurances or normalization of relations with Syria.

But after several attempts at Israeli-Syrian negotiations fell apart, Israelis began to feel increasingly entrenched in a land of yellow mustard flowers and snow-capped mountains.

“It’s like living in Napa,” said another vintner, Los Angeles-born Tal Pelter, who was raised in Israel and settled in the Golan about 15 years ago.

In addition to serving as a security buffer against Syria, it has become the breadbasket of the nation. Abutting the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s largest supply of fresh water, the Golan is encrusted in volcanic basalt rock that helps make the soil rich enough for vintners to curate dozens of wineries producing world-class wine. Apple orchards, banana plants, dairy cows, mineral springs and kibbutzim dot the fertile plateau.

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The Golan’s Druze residents were living in Syria when Israel seized controlof the region during the 1967 Six-Day War, driving thousands to flee. (Israel in effect annexed the territory in 1981.) The Syrian Druze now living under occupation appear divided over whatto do about the Golan Heights, with some differences falling along generational lines.

Older Druze, including many of the religious elders referred to as sheikhs, retain nostalgia for their homeland and want Syria to takecontrol. Several hundred staged a protest rally in the Druze city of Majdal Shams after the Trump announcement.

“The Golan is Syrian, and not because of anything Trump says,” said Sheikh Ramez Rabah, who tends honeybees but complains Israel has restricted his ability to build. “I love my country, even when difficult.”

Younger Druze, who have known nothing but life under Israeli occupation, do not necessarily long for a return to Syria.

Dolan Abu Saleh, the twice-elected mayor of Majdal Shams, said Syria’s civil war and the destruction that followed eliminated the option of going back to the ancestral homeland.

“No doubt that Druze and Israelis in the Golan enjoy a level of safety and security that can’t be compared to life on the other side,” Abu Saleh, 41, said. Each night at dinner, he says he reminds his children that while they are well fed, there are children in Syria with nothing to eat.

Local elections only recently became a feature in the Golan, and many people refused to participate because they see it as an Israeli imposition.

At another boutique winery, this one at the Ein Zivan moshav 3,300 feet above sea level and scarcely a mile from Syria, Pelter, the vintner who made the Napa comparison, runs a cafe serving — what else? — Golan wine he has produced and cheese from his goat flock.

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International law would beg to differ, but Pelter said he sees Israeli sovereignty over the Golan as unlike the West Bank, Jerusalem or the Gaza Strip, lands captured by Israel and claimed by Palestinians.

“Giving away the Golan would be like giving away Tel Aviv,” he said.

Customer Edi Segal, a resident of Herzliya, outside Tel Aviv, chimed in: “It would be like [the U.S.] giving Texas or California back to Mexico. I wouldn’t give California back.”

Levy, the other vintner at Kidmat Zvi, used a similar argument. And he makes no bones about what he sees as his mission in life.

“I am a pioneer. I am a Zionist,” he said. “I cannot separate the two.”

When Netanyahu was at the White House for the Golan declaration, he presented as a gift a case of Levy’s Cabernet Sauvignon.

Trump’s Golan decision could have unintended consequences.

Critics say it will leave other Arab states more reluctant to deal with the Trump administration, notably in its pursuit of a peace agreement for Israel and the Palestinians. And the decision is a gift for Assad, a new issue around which to rally his bedraggled nation.

For decades, the Syrian government’s routinely strident rhetoric about taking back the Golan belied the stale peace in the area. Before the Syrian civil war, Syrian troops had rarely fired into the Golan Heights in 40 years.

By 2012, when Western-backed Syrian rebels had captured major territory in southern Syria, they became the focus of Israeli overtures, despite Israel’s official position of staying out of the civil war, receiving supplies and possibly training.

In response, Syrian state media last year began beaming images of what it said were munitions, food and medicine packages labeled in Hebrew; they were shown as proof of the rebels’ collusion with “the Zionist enemy.”

Those images were often followed by Assad-ordered interviews of Druze on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, reaffirming their fealty to Assad and the Syrian government.

Times staff writer Nabih Bulos in Beirut and special correspondent Noga Tarnopolsky in the Golan Heights contributed to this report.

Twitter: @TracyKWilkinson


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