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.
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.
One thing that's different about these Israeli-Syrian peace talks is that for the first time, Israel is not dealing with President Hafez Assad, who died in 2000. Syria is now led by his son, Bashar, whose views are less well known. Something else that's new is the bone-deep cynicism in Israel's body politic toward giving up more land for the promise of peace with any Arab entity, what with the ongoing rocketing of Israeli border towns from the Gaza Strip nearly three years after Israel ended its occupation there.
Yet another new element is a U.S. president who isn't encouraging the talks. It has been widely reported that the Bush administration has little interest in moves that could ease the diplomatic isolation of Syria before it commits to breaking with its radical allies.
Settler activist Bar-Lev recalls past battles against Israeli prime ministers bent on trading the Golan Heights for peace, notably the settlers' hunger strike in 1994 that drew perhaps 250,000 Israelis to the Golan for solidarity pilgrimages. "Now it's a new round," she says.
Noting Olmert's legal and political troubles and Bush's chilliness toward the talks, she figures her team is starting out in a stronger position than in the past. But Olmert may have a successor before long, and Bush certainly will. "The chance of an agreement with Syria being reached under Olmert is almost zero," figures the Golan old-timer. "But 2009 should be an interesting year."