The Wrong Way Home: Israeli soldiers have been occupying Syria's Golan Heights since 1967 even though the area's strategic importance is non-existent and Israel stands to lose far more than gain from continued occupation. Most Israeli politicians and military leaders know this. The question has always been: which one is willing to act? (Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images)
If Israel wants peace with Syria, the solution is neither elusive nor complicated. It's a matter of 460 square miles (an area the size of Los Angeles), the 460 square miles of Syria's Golan Heights that Israel invaded in 1967, during the Six Day War, and has occupied since. In 1981, Israel illegally annexed the region, an annexation the United Nations quickly declared "null and void." That hasn't stopped Israel from streaming in illegal settlers, about 15,000 so far.
Israel has held on to the Golan officially because of security reasons. But there may be another motivation altogether, just as there was when Israel tried to hold on to portions of South Lebanon for two decades before discovering that the human cost wasn't worth it: both South Lebanon and the Golan are rich in farm land and water, two commodities dear to northern Israelis, and scarce there.
This isn't speculation. Moshe Dayan, Israel's defense minister during the Six Day War, cast doubt on the commonly held belief that Israel was holding on to the Golan for security reasons a few years before his death. As The New York Times reported in 1997, Daya, in conversations with a young reporter five years before his death in 1981, "Dayan said he regretted not having stuck to his initial opposition to storming the Golan Heights. There really was no pressing reason to do so, he said, because many of the firefights with the Syrians were deliberately provoked by Israel, and the kibbutz residents who pressed the Government to take the Golan Heights did so less for security than for the farmland. General Dayan did not mean the conversations as an interview, and the reporter, Rami Tal, kept his notes secret for 21 years -- until he was persuaded by a friend to make them public. They were authenticated by historians and by General Dayan's daughter Yael Dayan, a member of Parliament, and published ... in the weekend magazine of the newspaper Yediot Ahronot."
In 1999 and 2000 Israel and Syria talked peace in exchange for Israel returning the Golan. Talks failed when then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak refused to give up the last 400 meters (1,200 feet) of land along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, even though the land belongs to Syria. It was both a symbolic and cynical move on Barak's part--one last attempted parting shot of Israeli arrogance. No wonder Syrian President Hafez el Assad, who died half-way through the talks, and his son Bashar, didn't bite.
Now Israelis and Syrians are talking again, supposedly with Barak in behind-the-scenes settings. As Haaretz, the Israeli daily, put it in a cogent editorial last week,
There seems to be a need to repeat, over and over, this basic fact: Nothing contributes to Israel's security more than a peace accord. Before the protests of solidarity with the Golan Heights begin, it should be emphasized that withdrawal from the Golan in exchange for peace is endorsed not only by bleeding hearts, but by distinctly security-minded figures. The supporters of the Golan are West Bank settlers, like Golan resident Effi Eitam, who see any withdrawal as a national catastrophe; parties that gain strength by sowing security-related fears, such as Israel Beiteinu; those with economic interests in the region, hikers, bird-watchers, wine connoisseurs and winemakers; and mainly the people of the past, who still consider the lookout point on Mount Hermon to be "Israel's eyes," even though those eyes did not prove a very effective source of warning in 1973. Today, neither advance warning nor deterrence rely on the "Alpinists" (the elite IDF unit trained for snow operations), and the missile war expected in the future is not affected by natural boundaries, whether of the flowing or the ascending kind.The editorial was titled "Don't Be Afraid of Peace With Syria." The problem remains that even for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Kadima Party, those irrationally afraid of peace (or rather, irrationally afraid of those who oppose peace) outnumber those favoring it, no matter the endless good reasons to quit the Golan, and the few reasons, never convincing or legal, to stay.
For more background on the Golan, see my new Q&A, "What Is the Golan? What Are the Golan Heights?"