GOLAN HEIGHTS—As Israeli and Syrian negotiators prepared to resume recently announced peace talks, this rugged, swooping stretch of land that divides their two countries and dominates their discussions was booked fairly solid by Israelis on holiday.
In the hot, dry khamsin weather last weekend at the start of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, Israelis headed up to the Golan's cherry orchards, ranches, nature reserves, vineyards, waterfalls, and mountain trails. Typically, their reaction to the first Israeli-Syrian peace talks since 2000, being conducted through Turkish mediators in Istanbul, was one of scorn. "We love this place, and we're not going to give it back," says Avi, a young security guard from the Tel Aviv area.
He was picnicking with his girlfriend under the lush trees of the Banias Nature Reserve, near an old Syrian mosque abandoned during the 1967 Six-Day War when Israel gained control of the Golan Heights. Noting that Damascus is aligned with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, Avi expresses his fears that if Israel relinquishes this high ground, Syria will bombard Israeli towns and farming villages near the Galilee shore, as it did before 1967. "Anyway, these negotiations are just talk," he maintains. "There's no chance they'll succeed."
The Golan Heights, whose 1981 annexation by Israel remains unrecognized by the world, is widely considered the most gorgeous part of the country. Rising from the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee to Mount Hermon, it is about the size of Los Angeles but has only 40,000 residents—half Israeli settlers, half Druze Muslims who, with very few exceptions, remain loyal to Syria. In the past, the Golan was considered mainly a strategic military asset—the high ground, the "eyes of the country" watching Syria. Secondly, the Golan was valued for its water sources, which have vast importance in the Middle East.
Changed prospects. But while the Golan had great military significance in the ground battles of the Six-Day War and 1973 Yom Kippur War, it has less today, when there is satellite surveillance and more emphasis placed on missiles than on tanks. And with water-rich Turkey mediating—and reportedly receptive to the idea of selling some of its surplus to Israel, Syria, and other Mideast countries as part of a peace deal—the Golan's water issue could be resolvable.
Yet most Israelis don't see it this way, which could make it difficult to sell any deal on the home front. "The Golan is part of this country," says Svetlana, 45, an engineer who was strolling by the Snir stream with her husband and daughter, having driven up for the weekend from their Negev desert home in Beersheba. "Throughout history, countries lost land in war," she says. "When did the victor ever give it back?"
Beyond strategic value, beyond water, the Golan Heights provides both tangible and psychological breathing space for Israelis living in one of the world's most crowded, driest corners. The Golan is green, wet, mountainous; Israelis go skiing on the Hermon in winter. There's been no shooting from the Syrian side since the 1974 agreement brokered by then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
And while the 20,000 Druze live in exile, they do not live under military occupation; they're free to come and go anywhere in Israel without soldiers or checkpoints impeding them. (They can't travel to and from Syria, though, unless it's to attend college.) "This is a new model for peace in the Middle East, and look what Israel has gotten from it: no attacks, economic development, horseback riding, mineral water, good wine, good steak. Why tamper with it?" Ramona Bar-Lev, a settler activist since 1969, says as she sits in the office of the Golan Settlements Council in Katzrin, the "capital" of the heights.
Israel may not give this land up, now or ever. And on the Syrian side, the open question is whether President Bashar Assad is prepared to meet Israel's demand that he join the "moderate Arab camp" with Egypt and Jordan, neighbors that have peace treaties with Israel.
The odds seem to be against the peace talks, but Israeli public opinion and political alignment could change if the Syrians appear to be forthcoming. And though a solid Knesset majority opposes the negotiations, the talks are supported by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and the country's military and intelligence leadership. Furthermore, a less politically and legally endangered Israeli leader than Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could be in office before too long, as well as a less anti-Syrian U.S. president than George W. Bush. Finally, Israel, the United States, and Syria all have important alliances with Turkey, which has invested its prestige in getting these talks underway; no one wants to be blamed by Turkey for being the spoiler.