All Writings
December 19, 1999

The Case For Trading The Golan For Peace

There may be a first real opportunity in 50 years for Israel and Syria to make peace. But this historic opportunity could be lost because of fierce resistance to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights led by the Israeli opposition parties and parties within Barak's own coalition government. They cite national security, Syria's future political uncertainty, water supplies and the fate of the settlers to justify their opposition. Their arguments have, indeed, been valid 15 or 20 years ago, but they no longer hold true today. By clinging to the past and by disregarding the dramatic geopolitical changes that swept the Middle East since the fall of the Soviet Union, they are denying future generations the prospect of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace to which Syria holds the key.

First, national security: There is merit to the argument that the strategic Golan Heights is vital to Israel's national security. The suggestion that today's advanced weapons, (missiles and supersonic bombers) would render the Golan inconsequential is invalid. The Syrians would still need the infantry to consolidate any military gain resulting from massive air or missile attacks. The 1973 war showed that as a buffer zone the Golan afforded Israel the time and the strategic advantage to stop the advancing Syrian army. In spite of the massive air campaign it took American ground troops to dislodge the Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

This argument remains valid only as long as Syria was unwilling to make peace. However, under conditions of secure and normal peace the Golan becomes, as many Israeli Army generals attest, much less relevant. In fact, if Syria is ready and willing to deliver the peace that Israel wants, and if the Israelis refuse to offer full withdrawal in return as the Syrians insist, the Golan will become a liability and no longer a security asset. Indeed, what incentive would the Syrians have to keep the status quo of no peace and no war? Another war, or intensified terrorism (if only to destabilize the situation and possibly wreck Israel's peace with the Palestinians and Jordan), will be too tempting and only a matter of time. For how long will Israel be prepared to sacrifice its sons and daughters on the false premise that territory rather than peace offers the ultimate security?

Second, lack of trust: Although Assad has lived up to the commitments he made since the disengagement agreement of 1974, there is an ingrained lack of trust between Israel and Syria. The question that troubles many Israelis is whether or not Assad's successor, whether it is his son or someone else, would adhere to agreements made now by Assad. To argue that Syria cannot be trusted is not a cogent argument because under the best of circumstances peace between Israel and Syria cannot and will not be based on trust and no one understands this better than Barak. Moreover, in spite of Syrian political unpredictably, what will make an Israeli-Syrian agreement endure is if the new agreement is fair and equitable and if the security arrangements are solid. Succeeding leaders on both sides will not only need to justify such an accord, they will also have vested interests in its preservation. No Syrian leader could defend only a partial Israeli withdrawal in exchange for "warm and a comprehensive peace" and no Israeli leader could justify full withdrawal for anything less than full peace with security.

Future Syrian leaders will have to be utterly insane to trade peace and prosperity for a military adventure that would most certainly destroy their country. In any event, the potential for the rise of a despot that will reject the peace exists in Egypt as well as in Jordan. This possibility did not prevent Israel from making peace with these two states, something those who argue against withdrawal from Syria conveniently forget. Moreover, while peace provides the ultimate security, Israel will still maintain a formidable military power along with multiple security arrangements that will make aggression by any future Syrian leader unthinkable.

Finally, Israel is not likely to commit itself to a total withdrawal unless Syria accepts a phased pullout over a period of 2-3 years, while a parallel process of normalization of relations takes place culminating with the establishment of full diplomatic relations with the withdrawal of the last Israeli soldier. Peace which includes trade, cultural exchanges, tourism, etc. would strike deep roots and develop public interest in its continuing success.

Third, water supplies: There is no doubt that the Golan is an important source of water for Israel made even more critical in the last few years because of reoccurring drought. Those who oppose Israeli withdrawal because of water make two unfounded arguments: a) that Israel cannot manage without this water source when in fact it has been able to do so for 19 years before the capture of the Golan, and b) That Syria is not and will not be willing to share its water resource with Israel when in fact every Syrian official I have spoken with during the past several years stated that under conditions of peace a distribution formula would be found to the satisfaction of both sides.. The fact also remains that the water sources lie on both sides of the future border, and that each needs the other to achieve fair distribution.

Fourth, the future of the settlers: Those who invoke the presence of Jewish settlers on the Golan insists that the 17,000 Jewish residents on the Golan put their lives and livelihood on the line when they heeded the government's call to settle the Golan. They represent the real pioneers of the state and it is inhuman and therefore inconceivable that they should be evacuated.

The question that those who oppose the evacuation of the Golan must answer is: should Israel forfeit a historic opportunity for a comprehensive peace only so that the Golan's residents remain there even at the expense of subjecting the whole country to a perpetual state of war? As pioneers, the settlers indeed have played a critical role on behalf of their country in convincing the Syrians that only genuine peace might remove them from the Golan. In that respect they acted no less than soldiers defending the frontline of their country. But when the time comes and peace is being waged rather than war, soldiers too go home. As painful and heart-breaking as their evacuation will be, it must viewed only in that context and in the context of other alternatives. None exist. Prime Minister Rabin was correct when he bluntly stated that it is a "deception to argue that Israel can have peace with Syria while holding onto the entire Golan Heights." And "without an agreement with Syria" said Shimon Peres, "peace would be flawed, defective and lame."

Israel and Syria will have no peace unless the exchange of territory for full peace is total, complete and comprehensive. Those Israelis who suggest otherwise are dangerously misleading the public. Whether they do so out of shortsightedness or conviction, they are wrong. By their actions the opponents of withdrawal are paving the way for future senseless wars and undermining Israel's ability of achieving peace on better terms.