By Major Shawn Pine

It has been extremely difficult to discern any of continuity of thought within the minds of supporters of the peace process that call for Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Indeed, the convoluted logic used to justify a full Israeli withdrawal represents a historical hypocrisy that is evident to any observer of the Arab - Israeli conflict. This is exemplified by the position taken by one of Israel's most famous statesmen - Abba Eban. As the schism over peace process deepens among Israelis, Eban has become a vociferous supporter of full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Eban's position, as reflected in his published writings over the past three years, endorses the centrality of Syria in the peace process and challenges the Likud's position that the Golan Heights represents a critical component of Israel's security, thereby making a full withdrawal untenable. Eban has castigated the Likud as being unrealistic and has accused the Likud of exacerbating the likelihood of a regional Arab-Israeli war by its unwillingness to accept the Rabin/Peres position concerning Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.

However, there is a curious dissimulation in Eban's current position concerning the Golan Heights and the position he took relating to Sadat's 1971 peace initiative. This discrepancy was vividly illustrated in Eban's memoirs in his response to the accusation that the ruling Labor party missed the chance to achieve peace, and precipitated the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, by not taking Sadat's 1971 peace initiative seriously. In his memoirs, Eban enumerated the arguments why the charges that the rulings Labor party precipitated the 1973 Arab-Israeli war by categorically refusing to take Sadat's 1971 peace initiative seriously, were erroneous. Eban arguments included: Egypt's positions concerning peace and security were unsatisfactory; that Egypt was well aware that Israel would seek territorial revisions and that its "take it or leave attitude" was an indication that Egypt was not serious about peace; and that Sadat's demand for equal zones of demilitarization was ludicrous. Eban conjectured that the Camp David Accords would not have come to fruition had Sadat behaved in 1978-79 as he did in 1971.

Ironically, Eban does not apply the same standards to positions taken by the current Likud government regarding it's negotiations with Syria. Syria, as in the case of Egypt in 1971, has demanded a full Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967, lines. Assad has made the same demands for equal zones of demilitarization as did Sadat in 1971. Moreover, Assad has consistently exhibited the same "take it or leave it" attitude as did Egypt in 1971. However, the most disconcerting aspect of the current negotiations has been Syria's position pertaining to the kind of peace that Israel can expect to achieve following its withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Unlike Sadat, Assad has categorically rejected all of Israel's proposals for normalization and security arrangements. Indeed, Assad has made it clear that the best that Israel can expect for a total withdrawal from the Golan is a modified state of non-belligerency.

It is important to note that the Golan Heights is of much greater strategic importance to Israel than the Sinai. Unlike the Sinai, the Golan Plateau sits on top of the strategic Galilee in close proximity to Israel's northern population centers. Moreover, unlike the Sinai, whose broad expanse gives Israel time to mobilize its reserve forces, Israeli response time to a surprise Syrian attack is minimal. All of Israel's military strategists have historically stressed the critical strategic importance of the Golan Heights to Israel's security. This position has been buttressed by U.S. military assessments of the region which of consistently indicated the strategic importance of the Golan Heights to Israel's security.

In retrospect, it was clear that Israeli policy makers assessment of Sadat's intentions were wrong. The historical record clearly reveals that Sadat was interested in obtaining a peace agreement with Israel. Granted, this desire was not due to an altruistic motive of ending future wars in the Middle East. Rather, Sadat was motivated by the realization that only the West could provide the requisite economic and political support to save Egypt's failing economy, coupled with Sadat's personal animosity towards the USSR given that country's support for Sadat's removal of power. However, notwithstanding his motives, he took an enormous personal and political risk for peace. A risk that not only led to Egypt's regional isolation but resulted in Sadat's murder.

Conversely, while Assad's decision to negotiate an Israeli withdrawal is also motivated in a large part to the collapse of his historical benefactor, the Soviet Union, he is taking none of the personal and political risks that Sadat took. Indeed, Assad's motivation is purely a strategic decision to facilitate achievement of his short term objective of regaining the Golan Heights. However, while Assad is interested in regaining the Golan Heights, he is not willing to endanger any of Syria's long-term strategic interests. Assad's position should not come as a surprise to anyone. Peace in the region would have several detrimental ramifications for the Syrian regime including; marginalizing Syrian influence in the region; freeing the Palestinians from Syrian influence; and a weakening of the Syrian - Iranian alliance which would create a myriad of problems for Syria in Lebanon. Consequently, while Assad is willing to negotiate an Israeli withdraw, he will do so under very limited and circumscribed conditions.

Assad astutely recognized that the former Israeli government viewed the achievement of a peace treaty with Syria a higher priority than the content of such a agreement. This created a window of opportunity for Syria to negotiate the return of the Golan Heights without sacrificing its strategic interests in Lebanon and the Levant. Fortunately for Israel, Assad's total inflexibility on both the content of peace and extent of Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, provided opponents of the peace process the requisite time to mobilize public opinion against Israeli withdrawal.

Ironically, the same party that contributed to the outbreak of the 1973Arab - Israeli war, by their erroneous assessment of Sadat's intentions, are now calling for full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. If we accept the premise that Sadat's demands for peace in 1971 were too onerous for Israel to accede to, then the same conclusion must be made regarding the position of Assad regarding the current peace process.

Nothing that Assad has ever said or done has demonstrated that he is willing to accept Israel as a regional neighbor. Rather, Assad's position concerning normalization of relations with Israel indicates that Syria, should it ever perceive that it has achieved strategic military parity with Israel, would launch another war regardless of whether Israel returns the Golan. Indeed, given Syria's attitude toward peace, an Israeli withdraw from the Golan Heights would probably exacerbate the likelihood of conflict.

Middle Eastern historians have often mused that the two biggest strategic mistakes made by King Hussein of Jordan were his decisions to intervene in the 1967 Arab - Israeli war and to stay out of the 1973 Arab - Israeli war. Unfortunately, if supporters of the peace process have their way, it appears that history will record that Israel's two biggest strategic mistakes were its decision to reject Sadat's peace initiative in 1971 and its misinterpretation of Assad's intentions in the 1990's.


Major Shawn Pine is a military analyst and former officer in both the Israeli and American military. He also a research associate with the Freeman Center For Strategic Studies.

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