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Israel Faxx \/ / \/ /
Sept 21, 1994 Volume 2, #171 / /\__/_/\
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Golan's Quagmire Forces Israel to Rethink Future
By Al Pessin (Jerusalem)
A senior US official handling Middle Eastern affairs,
Dennis Ross, is visiting Syria and Israel this week to try to
move those countries closer to agreement on key issues -- chief
among them, the future of the Golan Heights. Ross is laying
groundwork for a similar trip next month by Secretary of State
Warren Christopher, who is trying to follow Israel's agreements
with the Palestinians and Jordan by forging an accord with Syria.
With the future of the Heights under active negotiation,
following are some of the strategic and emotional issues involved.
The narrow roads up to the Golan Heights twist and turn
along steep mountainsides, forcing motorists to the precarious
edges of long, rocky and nearly vertical drops. At the top of
the heights are the broad cultivated fields of Israeli
settlements, and the spectacular, nearly straight-down view of
other settlements below -- a view Syrian gunners once used to
rain shells on farmers in their homes and their fields. An old,
rusty Syrian artillery piece remains near the edge, now next to a
storage building for bales of hay, and serving only as a prop for
This high ground, roughly 12 miles wide and 42 miles long, commands
vast stretches of the valleys below -- west and southwest to Israel
and northeast to Syria. Strategically, Israeli generals disagree
on just how crucial the heights are to the country's security.
Some say it is vital, others say controlling the heights is more of
a convenience. But to many Israelis, the memories of heavy
casualties suffered in taking the heights in 1967 remain vivid, and
they are reluctant to give them up. A recent public opinion survey
indicated Israelis are about evenly divided on whether to return
some of the Golan to Syria, but very few favor returning all of
That is what Syria is demanding, and in spite of public denials,
that is the direction many Israelis believe their government is
moving. At a recent news conference, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres
said Israel knows it must pay a price for peace, and must also
ensure its security.
He tried to walk a middle road in the dispute over the Golan's
future -- saying the terms of the final settlement are probably
not yet known by anyone. "The solution to the Syrian-Israeli
conflict does not lie in the Syrian position or in the Israeli
position, but in a third position that should be worked out and
agreed upon. In all, the negotiations in the past when the two
parties came, each of them with its own position, finally neither
of the parties accepted the idea of the other party, but both of
them agreed to find a third solution, which takes into
consideration the most sensitive points of both parties."
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has offered a small,
symbolic withdrawal in return for full peace and then further
talks after three years -- with no guarantee of what the final
border will be. But such talk does not impress Israeli
activists who want to keep the Golan Heights, including the
13,500 residents of the region.
They are spread out in more than 30 settlements, engaged mainly in
agriculture but also some industry, including the production of
some of Israel's best wine. Their land also includes the sources
of about 30 percent of Israel's fresh water -- a resource they say
cannot be placed in Syria's hands.
The settlers' spokeswoman, Marla van Meter, says with Israel's
military strength and potential financial incentives from the
United States, Israel does not need to offer Syria land for
"The residents of the Golan are working toward convincing
the present government of Yitzhak Rabin to start negotiating with
Syria on the basis of peace for peace, that peace in this region
benefits both countries, in terms of opportunities for trade,
tourism, diplomatic ties, etc."
Van Meter says Syria would benefit much more from such economic
development than it would from regaining control of the fairly
small territory of the Golan Heights. But she knows she would have
a difficult time convincing Syrian President Hafez al Assad of
that. Assad has made unprecedented moves in recent weeks to show
his interest in a peace agreement, but he continues to demand the
return of all the territory he lost in 1967.
So, that is the tough issue at the center of these talks. Either
Syria will get all of the territory -- or it will not. And
while Peres says "creativity" could be the solution, that means
worry and possibly disaster for Marla van Meter and the other Golan
Do we live in this fear of "three years left, with the clock
ticking" or do we believe that those small, cosmetic concessions
will be enough for the State of Israel and we go on with our lives
happily as we have the past 27 years? It is difficult," van Meter
says. "So, we have to fight against this idea of land concessions
and especially the dismantling of communities here."
She says the government has already gone back on its campaign
promise not to give up any of the Golan Heights region. And she
says it would be a shame to return the land to Syria -- still a
radical, totalitarian state which never settled or developed the
area when it controlled it -- and in the process to uproot
thousands of productive Israelis and risk the country's security.
Others argue that a peace treaty would guarantee Israel's security,
and to achieve that is worth giving up the Golan Heights and
forcing a few thousand people to move.
Those are some of the issues US envoy Ross and his delegation must
wrestle with as they seek some diplomatic common ground between
Syria and Israel, in an effort to keep the momentum of the Middle
East peace process going.
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