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Hands Off the Golan

Yosef Goell- Tuesday 6th Jan 2004

In 1981, prime minister Menachem Begin pushed through a Knesset law that formally annexed the Golan Heights to Israel. The area had been conquered 14 years earlier in the Six Day War. Only east Jerusalem had been similarly annexed, and that by a Labor government.

The Labor opposition mostly voted for the Golan bill, either out of conviction or because it did not want to oppose such an overtly patriotic step. In those 14 years, and in the following two decades, both Labor and Likud governments have consistently refrained from annexing any parts of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip or Sinai, all of which fell into Israel's hands in the same 1967 war.

There is a broad consensus among historians, as well as among the leading political and military actors of the time, that Begin's motivation in making the Golan Heights an exception was his desire to divert public attention from the forcible evacuation of recalcitrant Yamit settlers. That area was being returned together with the rest of Sinai, in keeping with the peace treaty with Egypt that had been recently signed.

There is good reason to suspect that last week's announcement by Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz – that the government intended to budget several hundred millions shekels over the next three years to expand settlement in the Golan – was a similar ploy. It was meant to divert public attention from the politically difficult decision to remove a number of outposts and settlements from the West Bank; and to scotch serious consideration of Syrian peace feelers.

Unfortunately, the unavoidable result of Katz's blabbing was a low-level snit with the US State Department. But this was the price to be expected in an environment in which our government speaks with different voices to the US, Syria, and its own electorate.

THE GOLAN Heights are of crucial strategic importance to Israel. It used to be Israeli practice to take visiting foreign VIPs to the Kfar Haruv precipice overlooking the Sea of Galilee to persuade them how suicidal it would be for Israel to relinquish any part of the Golan.
And the VIPs were convinced by the argument.
How long that conviction lasted is hard to say. What is certain is that the Israeli public continues to stick with the Golan even though Rabin, and prime ministers Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak were willing to gamble by giving up most or all of it in exchange for peace with Syria.

But the main reason to refuse to entertain any such thought is simply that the prospect of achieving a meaningful peace with Basher Assad's Syria is non-existent. The fact that the Golan border with Syria has been our quietest for the past three decades is due more to the fact that we can threaten Damascus from the Golan platform than to any pacific intentions on the part of Syria.

Paradoxically, public opinion even more than many of our leaders, is well aware of the Golan's value. It is the leaders who have a nasty habit of periodically caving in to pressure from Washington.

During the 10 years since Oslo, monthly opinion polls have found that while 60-70 percent of Israelis support some formula of exchanging land for peace with the Palestinians, a similar majority opposes giving up any part of the Golan for peace with Syria.

The investment of additional hundreds of millions of shekels and the settlement of additional hundreds or even thousands on the Golan will by itself not suffice to guarantee that the area stays in Israel's hands. To counter the tendency of Israeli leaders to develop weak knees on this issue, that very healthy public perception in support of keeping all of the Golan needs to be mobilized.

In order to get around the charges that he was selling out on his previous commitments to keep all of the Golan, Rabin promised at one point to submit any agreement with Syria involving even partial cession of the Golan to a popular referendum. He never got around to pushing through a referendum law before being assassinated.

Now is the time for Ariel Sharon and the Likud to adopt such a referendum law. The US will stop at nothing in applying pressure on humanly frail Israeli prime ministers when it serves their interests.

But America may well be compelled to bow to the clearly expressed vox populi of a democratic Israel.

The writer is a retired lecturer in political science and a veteran journalist.



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