In Israel, Separation Anxiety Over the Future of the Golan Heights

Why some Israelis are fretting about peace talks with Syria.

 A Druze shepherd (L) and a Druze farmer greet each other at the roadside May 22, 2008 near their viilage of Buqata in the Golan Heights. Israel and Syria announced today they are holding indirect peace talks brokered by Turkey, with Damascus demanding a full Israeli withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights in return for a comprehensive peace.

A Druze shepherd greets a Druze farmer in the Golan Heights, now the focus of Israeli-Syrian talks.

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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.

Whatever its prospects, the Israeli-Syrian peace process is moving again after eight static years. The coveted, pivotal Golan Heights is back in play.

Druze memories. Along the road on the eastern edge of the Golan stand reminders of Syria's pre-Six-Day War rule: a heavily pockmarked mosque and minaret, now covered with Hebrew and Arabic graffiti; a Syrian military base whose barracks were painted over with Israeli army insignias and which now stands abandoned again. Farther north, though, there are shockingly new, vibrant testaments to Syria's claim on this Israeli-ruled land: Syrian flags flying from the traffic circles in Majdal Shams, the largest of four Druze villages strung along the approach to Mount Hermon. The flags were taped to the upheld sabers and rifles on the heroic black sculptures memorializing the local Druze rebellion against French rule in the 1920s. In the town's Sultan Square, more Syrian flags and a framed photo of Bashar Assad are on display, along with photos of more than a dozen Golan Druze men imprisoned in Israel for espionage since as far back as 1982.

The flags and photos were hung a few days earlier for the annual protest marking the anniversary of Israel's occupation. They're also put out for the yearly Syrian Independence Day rally. That Syrian flags are allowed to flap in the wind in the center of Majdal Shams for days illustrated how low a profile Israeli soldiers and police maintain in the Druze villages. "We'll take the flags down later today," says Ali Almerei, 78, a businessman and communal leader. "We want peace with Israel. We don't use violence."

Israel's June 1967 conquest of the heights, which followed days of Syrian shelling, divided the Druze remaining in the Golan from their families across the new border. Economically, though, Golan Druze farmers, tourism entrepreneurs, and professionals have generally prospered under Israeli sovereignty. There is a "Shalom" restaurant in Majdal Shams and another in the nearby village of Mas'ade. Hundreds of Golan Druze have graduated from the University of Damascus and work as doctors, dentists, engineers, and in other professions all over Israel, including in Katzrin.

In his Majdal Shams fruit-and-vegetable store, Ahsan Zahwa, 38, says he has plenty of Israeli friends. "They come to my house, they spend the weekend with us," he says. But he joins all the pro-Syrian demonstrations and refuses to take out an Israeli passport or vote in Israeli elections. He says the few Druze who do "are not accepted and not respected." A butcher and former Arabic teacher, Hassan Fahr el-Din, 60, has lived under Syrian rule and Israeli rule, and he prefers the former. "In Syria," he says, "everyone is behind President Assad, not like here—one goes this way, another goes that way, somebody else goes a different way." El-Din maintains that Israelis are "mistaken" to fear that Syria would take back the Golan but give no peace in return. "What do they want?" he asks. "There hasn't been a bullet fired from Syria since the '73 war."

Yitzhak Rabin was the first Israeli prime minister to offer the Syrians land for peace; then came Binyamin Netanyahu, then Barak, now Olmert. Each of those earlier negotiations foundered on the amount of land and the extent of peace. While none of those failures led to war, Israeli doves warn that it could happen this time. If these talks fail because of Israeli intransigence, Assad might be tempted to launch an attack in the hope of bringing international pressure on Israel to deal. Moshe Maoz, a Hebrew University professor and one of Israel's leading authorities on Syria, doubts that scenario. "Assad," he says, "does not have the military power to want to risk attacking Israel." However, Maoz adds that war could occur without either side wanting it, as a result of tit-for-tat escalations that get out of hand, like in the run-up to the Six-Day War.