The Golan Compromise Option
The apparent readiness of President Hafez Assad of Syria to trade peace for territory was recently echoed by two Israeli leaders, Lieut. -Gen. Dan Shomron, who has just retired as the IDF's chief of the general staff, and Health Minister Ehud Olmert. The question is: How can Israel's security and Syria's sovereignty over the Golan Heights be reconciled to satisfy the skeptics in both camps?
Syria has been, and will continue to be, the key to a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab states. Assad's recent peace overture toward Israel was timed to take advantage of the prevailing post-Gulf war conditions. The destruction of Iraq's military power has, in fact, left Syria with the most potent Arab military force that faces Israel.
While Assad may negotiate from a relatively stronger position, he fully realizes that the military option, if there ever was one to solve the conflict with Israel, is no longer viable. The Soviet refusal to help Assad attain military parity with Israel and the U.S. commitment to Israel's security, evident throughout the Gulf crisis, further convinced Assad of the futility of using force. Moreover, the enforcement of UN resolutions against Iraq gave rise to Assad's hopes that eventually international pressure would be brought to bear on Israel, provided Syria limits its claims to UN Resolution 242.
The skeptics among Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's Likud Party, however, cite two decades of merciless Syrian bombardment of Israeli settlements from the highlands of the Golan before 1967. This emotionally charged issue is further accentuated by the distrust that Israelis feel toward the Syrians.
Many extremist Palestinian groups still find sanctuary in Syria; these groups include the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by Dr. George Habash, and the Domestic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by Nayef Hawatmeh, who are sworn to destroy Israel. Syria's military doctrine and orientation remain intact against Israel in every detail, and the fact that the political authority in Syria is arbitrary gives Israel no reason for comfort.
In addition, considerable pressure against any territorial concession is being exerted on the Shamir government by the Golan settlers (nearly 11,000), and they are supported by the majority of the Israeli public. Relying on these sentiments, the Shamir government has thus far refused to engage in any meaningful dialog, weighing the advantages of real peace against the continued state of war which has taxed the Israelis heavily in money and blood for years.
Many Israeli military experts, including Gen. Shomron, argue that strategic territory is important only in the absence of peace. But if peace prevails and other security measures such as electronic surveillance, permanent demilitarization, on-location verification and the stationing of early-warning systems alongside the UN troops are in place, then the importance of territory as a strategic asset diminishes considerably.
For Syria, regaining the Golan Heights is a matter of national pride. No Syrian leader can make peace with Israel without restoring the Golan, particularly since it was always a Syrian territory and no country has recognized its annexation by Israel.
The question, therefore, is: are there other options that could satisfy Israel's security needs, at the same time restoring Syria's sovereignty over the Golan in exchange for a comprehensive reconciliation-peace? Consider this:
* Israel could officially surrender the vast majority of the Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty under a UN agreement. Syria would then lease it back to Israel for an extended period of time (say 50 years), for which Syria would be handsomely paid.
* The enforcement of the agreement would be left in the hands of the UN Security Council and the Syrian government would not have the right to change or revoke it unilaterally. The lease could be renewed, extended or modified only by mutual agreement.
Accordingly, as long as peace prevailed with trade, cultural exchanges and investments, both sides would develop extensive vested interests in their relationship. Neither would have a compelling reason to undermine the agreement. Thus the Syrian flag would fly on the Golan for the Syrian people to see; while Israel's security would not be compromised.
In the course of these confidence-building years, the Golan settlers could relocate while fully compensated in the same manner as the settlers of Yamit and other settlements in Sinai. (Those settlers at first vehemently resisted relocation, but then were persuaded to leave in accordance with the Camp David Accords.) The Suez and Panama Canals and Hong Kong agreements provide examples on which the Golan Heights settlement might be fashioned.
In the end, Israel and Syria will have to compromise. The Syrians may not be able to regain the Heights in any other way if they choose to end their state of belligerency against Israel. The Israelis, who have not known peace since the creation of their state in 1948, may yet find that no piece of land can in the long run substitute for real peace.