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Why Israel Should Not Give Up All of the Golan

Published in The Jewish Press, The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle

In December, the Israelis and Syrians resumed their negotiations over the status of the Golan Heights. The Israeli Prime Minister Barak stated that a “peace” agreement with Syria cannot be reached without “major sacrifices” by Israel. It appears that Barak has already decided to withdraw from all of the Golan, but is involved in a public relations campaign to convince the Israelis to support it. Barak also promised to submit any draft peace agreement for ratification in a public referendum. But in recent surveys a majority of Israelis stated that they would oppose giving up all of the Golan Heights even for a “peace” treaty.

Why?

* For 18 years up to the Six Day War in 1967, Syria, while controlling the Golan Heights, terrorized north Israel, causing many casualties.

The Golan Heights is a tiny area of 444 square miles and is no more than 16 miles at its widest point. But like the West Bank, it is an extremely mountainous area with an average height of 4,000 feet, looking down to its west to Northern Israel and to its east, to Damascus, Syria. Mt. Hermon, the highest point of the Golan has an altitude of 7,297 feet and is about 20 miles from Damascus, constituting both a deterrent and a shield.

When Syrian soldiers were stationed on the high ground, they shelled and shot at farmers working the fields, fishermen, children’s quarters and residences, which were only a few hundred meters below them. Furthermore, from the Golan, they attacked Israel without provocation in the 1948 War of Independence and the 1967 Six Day War.

* Any withdrawal on the Golan means relinquishing strategic depth.

The Syrian regular army, which is more than twice the size of Israel’s regular army, keeps most of its forces on active duty, unlike the Israeli army which consists mainly of civilian reserves that must be mobilized.

During the first two days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Syria, through a surprise attack, was able to penetrate through the Golan to the outskirts of the Galilee of northern Israel. The Israeli units outnumbered ten to one by advancing Syrians, suffered heavy casualties, and struggled to hold the line until the reserves arrived on the third day and began a defensive counter-attack.

To those who suggest that in this modern age of long-range missiles, there is no value to a small piece of land, the Gulf War should teach us that even though the U.S. bombarded Iraq for weeks, it was still not able to destroy the army or conquer Baghdad without fighting on the ground.

Those who argue that Israel should give up all the Golan to the Syrians – as it gave up all Sinai to the Egyptians – should not forget that the Sinai desert’s width of 120 miles separates the Egyptian army from Israel. While the Egyptians face a journey of days to reach Israel from their current position, the Syrians could reach Israeli population centers in a matter of hours.

* Syria, having allegedly been invited to Lebanon, now occupies it with its military presence of 35,000 soldiers.

It seems that the main reason Prime Minister Barak is willing to give up the Golan Heights is to be able to withdraw the Israeli army from the Security Zone in Southern Lebanon, where it has suffered heavy casualties by Hezbollah. Barak expects Syria to disarm the Hezbollah, which has been terrorizing northern Israel with Syria’s permission and Iran’s financial backing, and fill the vacuum with the Lebanese army. But since Syria is the only power broker in Lebanon, Israel would end up having the Syrian army on two fronts and legitimizing at last Syrian’s control over Lebanon. Of course, it is absurd to expect Syria to disarm Hezbollah, when for decades Syria has been a “haven” and training ground for about a dozen terrorist groups and is still on the United State’s list of countries that support terrorism.

* The Golan, which dominates the headwaters of the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee, controls 40 percent of Israel’s water supply, while the West Bank controls another 40 percent.

Moreover, the Syrians insist that the border between Israel and Syria should be at the line which separated the two sides on the eve of the 1967 War. This would give Syria control over the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Israel insists that the border should be the international border that was drawn in 1923 between the French and British mandate which would leave the Lake entirely in Israeli control. Between 1949 to 1967, the Syrian Army encroached the established international border and advanced to the shore of the Lake. The Sea of Galilee is Israel’s largest reservoir, providing 30 percent of the country drinking water and irrigation.

* The Syrian dictator has never built a trust relationship with the Israeli public.

The chief Israeli negotiator recently asked rhetorically if the Israeli public expects the Syrian leader to get less for a peace treaty than Sadat of Egypt did. In reality, Haffez Al-Assad is no Sadat. Sadat showed his sincere intentions of peaceful coexistence by coming to Jerusalem, speaking in the Israeli parliament, and meeting then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

In contrast, President Assad has refused any direct contact with any Israeli officials. Instead he sent to the negotiations his Foreign Minister Farouk Shara, to meet with Israel’s Prime Minister. In the White House and later on in Shepherdstown, Shara refused to shake hands with Barak and the Syrians have refused Israel’s humanitarian requests regarding the fate of four Israel soldiers who disappeared in Lebanon.

Supporters of a Golan deal state that Assad at last is ready to sign a peace treaty with Israel because the Syrian economy and the army are in such a poor shape that he no longer has military option. But if Syria is so weak, one has to wonder why

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Israel is in such a rush to reach an agreement with Assad and gives up its strategic asset. Why not sit back and wait for an even more weakened Syria or even its collapse as the United States did with the Soviet Union in 1989.

It is scary to think that in exchange for signing a pact with Israel, Syria would get not only the Golan but also billions of dollars in U.S. economic and military aid such as Egypt has received since signing a peace treaty with Israel. Is Israel so shortsighted and reckless that it would sign a deal that would strengthen this totalitarian regime, which in turn would be strong enough to attack Israel again, but this time from the Golan with American weapons.

Furthermore, Assad is old and sick and the succession of his son, Bashar, is not assured. The 35-year-old son is said to lack the political skills, military authority, financial acumen and “stomach” that are necessary for a leader. Why not wait for a post-Assad era?

The leaked U.S. working paper implied that Assad agrees to normalization of relations with Israel, including an economic and trade relationship, tourism and open borders. However, Assad is a totalitarian ruler who presides over one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Such a leader cannot afford to open his society and bring change which would undermine his power. Assad sees the peace with Israel as cold and limited as the one Egypt has had with Israel for the last 20 years, despite the 50 normalization memorandums, which were attached to the Camp David peace treaty. Furthermore, Syria has had hostile relationships with its own Arab and Muslim neighbors. How can Israel truly expect the Syrian government to have a peaceful relationship with its Jewish neighbor?

Since 1974, the Syrians have not fired on Israel because Israeli forces have been stationed on the Golan Heights. In light of the risks and dangers involved, Barak should stop “begging” Assad to take the Golan, be patient and think about Israel’s security first.

Published in the The Jewish Press and The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle