WHO SAYS THE GOLAN IS SYRIAN?
By Prof. Yoav Gelber
[Originally appeared in Yediot Ahronot [January 16, 2004]. Translation thanks to Moshe Kohn.]
Before we proclaim that "the Golan is Syrian," it is worthwhile doing a quick review of its history. Ever since the establishment of the Syrian state, that country has lost more significant segments of its land than the Golan. In 1920 Mosul was given to Iraq and Tripoli to Lebanon, and in 1937 the Turks took Alexandretta. Yet Syria has maintained correct relations with all three of those annexing neighbors. It would seem that her insistence on getting the Golan back in its entirety stems solely from her desire to weaken Israel.
In the original division between French Syria and British [Mandatory] Palestine [after World War I], most of the Golan Heights was within the borders of Palestine. In the course of the demarcation of the boundary, local landowners applied heavy pressure, and as a result - and due to the absence of Zionist counter-pressure - the line was moved [somewhat] westward. Upon gaining independence, Syrian refused to recognize that line, and ever since they have been demanding that the border run down the middle of the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret [the "Sea of Galilee"]. During the [1947-1948] War of Independence [Arab-Israel War], the Syrians gained control of areas west of the Jordan and afterwards demanded that the border coincide with the water line. The response of Israel's foreign minister at that time, Moshe Sharett, was that it was unthinkable that Israel should hand her Syrian enemy what the British had refused to give their French ally.
Under the 1949 armistice, the Syrian Army retreated across the border, and the area they vacated was declared a demilitarized zone. The struggle for the control of that area reached its peak when Israel started to drain the Huleh Valley swampland. In the spring of 1951 violence broke out throughout the demilitarized zone, leading to the expulsion of the Arab residents of the area to Galilee and across the border, and Israeli sovereignty over the area was ensured. There was a de facto partition of the demilitarized areas: Israel controlled the central section and the Syrians had el-Hamma on the Kinneret's northeastern shore and two tels on the fringes of the Galilee "panhandle." This partition is the basis of the difference between the two concepts, "the international border" and "the June 4  lines."
What did not obligate the Syrians then should not obligate Israel [today]. There is no need today to hand the Syrians a border that they rejected in the1940s and 1950s. The Golan has been under Israeli rule longer than under the rule of independent Syria (36 years as against 21 years). [The Golan town of] Katzrin is no more Syrian than Jaffa, Lod, Ramleh, or Acco [Acre] are Palestinian (under the 1947 United Nations partition proposal), and we ought to think of the consequences of setting a precedent by giving up the Golan.
The weight of the historical arguments might have been different if Syria held Israel by the throat. But the only real Syrian threat against Israel is the threat of missiles aimed at Israel's center. Security arrangements in the Golan might be a partial solution regarding the security of the Israeli settlements situated along the pre-1967 line, but is no answer to the threat of missiles fired from points far from the demilitarized zone and from far Israel's warning systems. The sole constraint on the implementation of this threat is the Israel Defense Forces' proximity to Damascus, Israel's withdrawal from which would abandon the Dan region, the Coastal Plain, and Haifa to Syrian missiles.
The argument that a peace agreement is the best defense against missiles is delusive. There has never been a war that was not preceded by peace. And the risks of war in our case are not symmetrical: we cannot afford a single loss, whereas our neighbors have survived several debacles. That is why Israel stubbornly insists on security arrangements in any pace pact with any of her neighbors.
Syria has far more serious problems than we in the military sphere, in the economic sphere, and in the political sphere. She needs peace in order to solve some of them, and it is she - not Israel - that has to pay the main part of the price to achieve it: first and foremost by ceasing to support Palestinian and Lebanese terror, and also by waiving her claim to most of the Golan.