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The Battle over the Golan: Israeli Perspective

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POL 441: Arab-Israeli-Conflict

Tuesday November 29, 2005

The Battle Over the Golan: Israeli Perspective

The Golan Heights, seized by Israel from Syria in the closing stages of the Six Day War (June 5-10, 1967) and then again during the surprise attacks of the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, has held not only political and strategic significance but historical importance as well. Overlooking northern Israel and southern Syria, the Golan, annexed in 1981, has given Israel an excellent vantage point for monitoring Syrian movements with a topography that provides a natural buffer against any military thrust from Syria. The Golan Heights embraces 1,250 square kilometers (500 square miles) and borders southern Lebanon, northeast Israel and northwest Jordan. Its elevations range from 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) in the north to below sea level along the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias) and the Yarmuk River in the south. (Wikepedia) Israel may be willing to return some of the Golan but wants to retain the 1920 border drawn during the French Mandate of Syria and the British Mandate of Palestine following World War I. Syria asserts the Heights are part of the governorate of Al Qunaytirah, and the international community considers they are to be a part of the Israeli-occupied territories. (BBC News) The military importance of the Golan Heights has increased during recent years mainly due to the introduction of ballistic missiles and technologies. The 1991 Gulf War, and the proliferation of US military bases and installations throughout the globe, are confirmation of the critical role played by topographic edge, geographic depth and strategic location in the strengthening of one's national security. While most advanced high-tech military and early-warning systems improve and increase the capabilities of one's military forces, they are no substitute for the unique contribution of a vital territory. Israel's neighbors may be able to obtain superior forms of technological systems, but they cannot duplicate the exceptional uniqueness of mountain ridges that make up the Golan Heights. Since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Syrians shelled the settlements of northern Israel almost daily and made life there intolerable. During the Six Day War, the Syrians perilously assaulted Israel by means of the Golan and almost succeeded in defeating it. This moment in history could have ended the existence of the Jewish State. Astonishingly, Israel was able to fend off its aggressors and occupy the Golan Heights. The Golan has since then been incorporated politically and in every other respect into the State of Israel. What used to be a wilderness has become, under Israeli administration, a successful province with prospering cities, flourishing agriculture and a site for a substantial amount of tourism. (Jewish Virtual Library) From the time of its independence and establishment as a state, Israel has sought peace with its neighbors through direct negotiations. However, its efforts to extend its arms, reach out for peace and to unlock direct channels of dialogue have not fully been met by similar efforts on the Arab side. Up until the Madrid Conference held in 1991, the only country accepting Israel’s offer for face-to-face negotiations was Egypt. In May 1989, Israel presented a new peace initiative. The breakup of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War produced a change in the basic political order of the Middle East, inducing the Arab world to re-evaluate its attitude toward Israel and to enter into negotiations to build a new future for the region. (Jewish Virtual Library) In Madrid, conferences were held to inaugurate direct peace talks. Subsequently, bilateral negotiations were carried out between Israel and Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians, as well as multilateral talks on key regional issues such as water resources. To date, these negotiations have resulted in a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, and a series of interim agreements with the Palestinians. Following the Madrid Conference, talks between Israeli and Syrian delegations commenced in Washington with a similar agenda as the talks that began in Madrid. Under the Clinton Administration, in 1993, , negotiations were conducted on the ambassadorial level in Washington which allowed for more focused discussions on security arrangements, a draft for a potential peace treaty, and the convening of two meetings between the Israeli and Syrian chiefs-of-staff. (Israeli Foreign Ministry) These negotiations were supported by the involvement of high-ranking U.S. officials, including meetings on two occasions between President Clinton and President Assad and a number of visits by Secretary of State Warren Christopher to the region. (Israeli Foreign Ministry) The Israeli negotiators have stated to the Syrians that Israel accepts the principle of withdrawal on the Golan Heights, in the context of a peace settlement, which simultaneously addresses four key issues which include the depth of the withdrawal, the schedule and duration for withdrawal, the stages of the withdrawal and the linkage between them and normalization, and lastly, an agreement over security arrangement. (Jewish Virtual Library) Israel has upheld the position that direct and public high-level meetings between Israeli and Syrian leaders will allow for an advancement in the deal-making process and could potentially bolster public confidence particularly when it comes to Syria's desire for peace. (Israel Foreign Ministry) One of the largest issues at stake when discussing the Golan Heights is without question the concern over Israel’s water resources. The eastern mountain ridge of the Golan Heights constitutes the watershed of the Lake of Galilee, which provides Israel with 30% of its water. Some Israelis believe that Syrian control of the watershed could contaminate the lake and enable Damascus to divert the sources of the lake elsewhere. However, Syrian promises to supply Israel with adequate quantity and quality of water and to refrain from any offensive initiatives, should be examined against the backdrop of Damascus' track record as a ongoing violator of commitments to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Israel. With all this in mind, Syrian promises do not appear to be carved in stone. Moreover, the assessment that Syria has launched a strategy of peace should be examined in the context that there has been an absence of all-embracing peace between Syria and each of its Muslim neighbors. It would be in Syria’s best interest to consider some sort of agreement with Israel for several reasons. First of all, Syria has been included in the U.S. Department of State’s list of state sponsors of terrorism since 9/11. Although Syrian officials have repeatedly stated their commitment to protect American citizens in addition to there being no record at this point in time of any terrorist attacks against Americans in Syria, a number of.terrorist groups who oppose U.S. policies in Middle East have presence in the country including Palestinian groups operating there and Hezbollah from Lebanon. (Dunford) Though unprecedented, an agreement with Syria about the Golan would be possible and acceptable to Israel if it would bring about real peace with Syria. But that is quite a big if and not necessary a guarantee by any means. Anyone who has traveled to the Middle Eastern region or has read up on the public opinion of Israel in its neighboring countries knows that the hatred against Israel is so deep-seeded that it would take progressive leaders and at least a generation or two to overcome it. Syrian newspapers and broadcasts are filled with venom and unending hatred against Israel. Beginning with the earliest grades, even schoolchildren are filled with poisonous propaganda about Israel as an enemy who has stolen (unrightfully so) Arab land, and as a consequence, should thus be eliminated. There may in fact be a way to make peace and resolve conflict with Syria, but the road is not necessarily going to be all that smooth. Israel could return sovereignty of the Golan to Syria and lease the territory from it for an agreed-upon period, which is a strategy the British took in Hong Kong and what the United States is currently doing in Guantanamo, Cuba. A strategy such as this one has worked out elsewhere, even for nations that have a hostile history with one another. If this were to take place, one would have to only hope that public opinion in Syria and in the other Arab countries could mature enough for Israel to be able to afford relinquishing such a strategic asset. For Syria to agree to such a settlement would be a positive step toward peace and would provide some much-needed proof of their good intentions. But, regrettably, the acceptance by Syria of such a solution does not seem likely. It would be an understatement to say that there is quite a bit of opposition in Israel to a withdrawal from the Golan Heights. The likelihood for a treaty most certainly depends on public opinion, the behavior of nations, and the patience, persistence and cooperation of the leaders who help hold the fate of the region in their hands.


BBC News

Dunford, David. “Lecture Notes” via

Haaretz Israeli Newspaper

Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Jewish Virtual Library

Middle East Info


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