Assad mumbles to a western journalist (Editor's Note: Recently in 1999 it is Patrick Seale, British author and biographer of Assad) that he might possibly, maybe, could, almost accept a Jewish entity someplace on the planet earth. The media and some Israeli officials proclaim loudly, "ASSAD READY FOR TRUE LASTING MESSIANIC PEACE WITH ISRAEL."

Reprinted from THE FORWARD of July 9, 1999


By Hillel Halkin

Here we go again: The Golan Heights are back on sale. The last time we had this "everything on the Golan must go" atmosphere was during the Rabin-Peres administration, when the rumors flew as fast as the envoys between Jerusalem and Damascus that an Israeli-Syrian deal was around the corner. The deal was, of course, "land for peace": Israel would cede the entire Golan to Syria in return for a peace treaty that would include security arrangements and the promise of an Israeli embassy and Israeli tourists in Damascus.

The Netanyahu victory in the 1996 elections scotched this scenario, and many Israelis, including quite a few who had voted against Mr. Netanyahu, hoped it had scotched it for good. Indeed, this hope was supposedly shared by Ehud Barak, who as chief of staff in the Rabin-Peres years was said to have been opposed to the total concession of the Golan. Now, however, we have been surprised twice: Once by recent reports that Mr. Netanyahu himself was secretly seeking to negotiate a settlement with Hafez al-Assad similar to that proposed by his predecessors, and a second time by the rapidly growing impression that the newly elected Mr. Barak is preparing to do the same thing.

The world, needless to say, is delighted. Why shouldn't it be? The world cares (and knows) as much about the history and geography of the Golan as it does about the Kalahari Desert. The world wants peace and quiet in the Middle East - especially quiet. The Syrians have clearly told the world that it can have them if and only if Syria gets the entire Golan. The Israelis have mumbled. They have been mumbling about the Golan for the past seven years.

The world understands clear speech better than it understands mumbles. It would like the Israelis to give the Syrians what they want so that it can stop worrying about another damnned war in the Middle East. And, indeed, why not give the Syrians what they want? The only reason I can think of is that for Israel, this would be unjust, demoralizing and dangerous. That needn't perhaps worry the world. It should worry us.

It would be unjust because the Syrian claim to the Golan is not a good one - certainly no better than Israel's. True, Arabs lived on the Golan for hundreds of years, but so, before them, did Jews, who fought and died there for their indepen-dence, as any visitor to the spectacular archeological site of Gamla knows. Nor, since Syria only became an independent state in 1944, which means that it controlled the Golan for a grand total of 23 years as opposed to 32 so far for Israel, were the Golan's Arabs politically Syrian. Indeed, the pre-1967 border itself dates back no further than 1920, when England and France carved up Syria and Palestine between them. Israel occupied the Golan militarily as a result of a defensive war of the kind that has changed numerous international frontiers in our times (among them the Polish-German and Russian-Japanese ones) and has developed the area economically beyond anything the Syrians ever dreamed of. Moreover, Security Council Resolution 242, to this day the most authoritative international statement of the "land for peace" principle, never demanded a total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan or any other Arab land conquered in 1967. By what conceivable moral, legal or historical right, then, does Syria have the whole Golan coming to it? What kind of "compromise" (ah, how the world loves that word!) will it be if Syria gets 100% of the territory under dispute and Israel gets zero?

Giving up the whole Golan in spite of its unfairness would be demoralizing, first, because to do so would mean acknowledging that Israel, although the militarily stronger party, is more afraid of a war with Syria than Syria is of a war with Israel - presumably because Israelis are easier to frighten; second, because Israel has invested an enormous amount not only economically but also emotionally in the Golan, the loss of which, along with the eviction of nearly 20,000 Jewish residents from their homes, would be devastating, and third, because ever since 1982 the Golan has been officially as much a part of Israel as the Galilee or Tel Aviv. What happens to the psyche of a nation that treats its sovereign territory as someone else's?

And this is why giving the controlling heights of the Golan to Syria would be dangerous not only to Israel's military security, but even more, to Israel's psychological security. If Israel caves in on the Golan because of its fear of war, why should it not cave in on Jerusalem - indeed why should the Arabs not expect it to cave in and threaten it with war until it does?

It is fooling oneself to imagine that a total return of the Golan will not make the Palestinian Arabs more intransigent about a total handing over of the West Bank, just as the total return of Sinai in 1977 made the Syrians more intransigent about the Golan. And suppose that in 10 or 15 years the Palestinian state that will exist then comes to Israel with pan-Arab backing and says: "Do you want to live in peace with us? Then please hand over those parts of the Galilee that have an Arab majority and that were assigned to us by the 1947 U.N. partition resolution." On what basis would those who support ceding the whole Golan to Syria today oppose yielding to such a demand tomorrow? What will they tell Israelis - what will Israelis tell themselves - when the Golan gone, they are once again asked to make "reasonable" territorial concessions for the sake of peace? No Israeli in his right mind wants a war with Syria and the thought of the human cost that such a war would entail is quite rightly enough to make one tremble.

But it should be - there is every indication that it is - enough to make the Syrians tremble, too. The argument that the only way to avoid such a war is to give Syria the Golan so that Israelis can frequent the bazaars of Damascus is absurd. Apart from its national pride (Israel, of course, is not supposed to have any), Syria has no need of the whole Golan, which comprises one-half of one percent of its total land area, while Israelis certainly do not need to shop in Damascus. In fact, Israel has nothing to gain, economically or in any other way, from diplomatic relations with a third-world police state like Syria, with which a simple state of non-belligerency would be quite sufficient. "Land for peace?" By all means! But let Israel give less land and get less peace. It is still not too late for the Barak government, which is taking its first steps this week, to stop mumbling and tell the world and the Syrians loud and clear that, yes, Israel is willing to compromise but not to play the international sucker.

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