The Golan Heights:Israel's Predicaments
P.R. Kumaraswamy, Research Fellow, IDSA
Whoever would like to say that he is for all the Golan Heights, has to prepare for war, three, five or seven years from now or ten years from now.
— Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, June 19941
The decisive victory of Labour leader Ehud Barak in the May 1999 Israeli elections has rekindled the prospects of peace between Israel and Syria. Despite his uncompromising position vis-à-vis Syria in public even the outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to have pursued back channel diplomacy to revive the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations. Unlike other aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the problem of the Golan Heights is definite and unambiguous. It revolves around the question of control and sovereignty over the Heights, which remain under Israeli control since the Arab-Israeli War of June 1967. Continued Syrian insistence on the return of the Golan is confronted by prolonged Israeli aversion to the idea of partial, let alone, complete withdrawal. The absence of a direct dialogue or negotiations facilitated both countries to reiterate their respective positions without attempting a compromise and acceptable solution.
By going to Madrid in October 1991, both countries undertook to resolve their disputes peacefully. If lack of a viable military option compelled Syria to seek a diplomatic solution, prolonged political isolation and non-recognition of its claims by the international community drove Israel to seek a peaceful settlement. Given the conflicting positions of the parties, any peace agreement between Israel and Syria pre-supposes an amicable settlement of their dispute over the Golan. A complete withdrawal by itself would be insufficient to ensure peace and security for Israel but withdrawal is essential for peace. Paraphrasing Moshe Dayan, it is possible to argue that the Golan without peace is more vital for Israel than peace without the Golan. Any Israeli-Syrian peace, however, would undoubtedly involve a substantial if not complete, Israeli withdrawal from the Golan. This position has increasingly become more apparent in the Israeli discussions on the peace process.
This realisation enabled the Rabin-Peres government (1992-1996) to pursue serious and substantial negotiations with Syria in Washington. The victory of Benjamin Netanyahu in May 1996 and his commitment for a "peace-with-Golan" had effectively ended the negotiation process. The election of Ehud Barak in May 1999 has once again rekindled the hopes of a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Syrian dispute. The Israeli position vis-à-vis the Heights, does not reflect the concerns of a particular political party or group. There are various domestic and regional issues and concerns that influence, dictate and even undermine that policy. The inability of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to publicly commit to a substantial Israeli withdrawal was not accidental. A significant section of the Labour Party was opposed to any territorial concession on the Golan thereby weakening Rabin's negotiating positions. Likewise, the position of the Netanyahu-led government (1996-1999) should not be taken merely as an outcome of the right-wing ideology. Any decision concerning withdrawal would be influenced by a number of internal factors, long-held perceptions and strong emotional arguments, most of them domestic. The long held peace-for-peace formula whereby both countries would make peace, with Israel retaining the entire, or a substantial portion of the Golan, has become an unrealistic preposition even inside Israel. Settlement of the Golan issue to the satisfaction of both parties, is a pre-condition for any fruitful conclusion of a peace treaty between Israel and Syria. This paper would examine and analyse the in-built difficulties and problems that Israel faces in accepting the demand for a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Despite the initial euphoria and the vast parliamentary majority, the Barak-led government could face most of the difficulties that confronted the previous Labour government.2
Phases of the Dispute
The period since 1967 when the Golan Heights came under Israeli control, can be categorised into five main phases. For most of this period, the issue remained unsolvable because of the uncompromising positions of either or both sides. Syrian refusal to accept UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967 made the prospect of an Israeli withdrawal a non-starter. The Palestinians refused to accept the resolution because it treated them merely as "refugees", while Syria was not enthusiastic about accepting and recognising the right of the Jewish state in the Middle East. The initial Israeli proposal to completely withdraw from the Golan in return for total Syrian demilitarisation of the area fell through following the Khartoum resolution and the three NOs.3
The positions of both parties changed significantly following the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 and Syria for the first time was willing to accept Resolution 242 as the basis for peace. In exposing Israel's military vulnerabilities and by inflicting heavy casualties, the Arab countries were able to come to terms with Israel and began to re-examine the notion of the Jewish state being a temporary implant. Does Syria accept Resolution 242? Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Abdul Ghani Rafei remarked in June 1975: "When we say that we accept Resolution 338, based on Resolution 242, it means that we accept it with all its provisions."4 The Separation of Forces Agreement signed on May 31, 1974, enabled Syria to reclaim a small portion of the Golan. The war that began on the Yom Kippur Day gradually hardened the Israeli position and Prime Minister Rabin was not willing to proceed with a Golan-II agreement with Syria. Following the 1977 surprising victory of Menachem Begin, the focus shifted to Egypt and the Golan became a non-issue.
The third phase began in 1981 when Begin unexpectedly decided to "apply" Israeli law to the Golan Heights, thereby raising doubts about Israeli commitments about the application of Resolution 242 to the Syrian front. The move, though endorsed by a large majority in the Knesset, was primarily aimed at placating Begin's critics on the right, who disapproved of the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai and the dismantling of the Jewish settlement at Yamit. The law does not explicitly address the question of sovereignty but as Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir admitted, it precludes territorial compromise because, "Golan is part of the State of Israel just as Jerusalem is part of Israel."5 Shamir's going to the Madrid Conference based on the "land-for-peace" formula marked an indirect shift in Israel's policy. The Golan became an important political agenda in the peace process.
The victory of the Labour Party in 1992 and Prime Minister Rabin's willingness for a "territorial compromise" on the Golan, marked the fourth Golan phase. For the first time since 1967, the settlement of the Israeli-Syrian dispute over the Golan was in the realm of possibility. Though no concrete and binding agreements were signed, at least in private the Israeli government was willing to accept the Syrian demand and withdraw to the June 4, 1967 borders on the Golan. The victory of the Likud leader Netanyahu in May 1996 temporarily shifted the situation to the 1981-1991 situation when Israel was formally committed to peace while seeking to retain the Golan Heights. Netanyahu's refusal to accept Rabin's private "understandings" brought the whole process to the pre-Madrid situation. With his defeat, the pendulum has once again shifted to the Rabin-Peres era. In all these phases, Israel found itself confronted with a series of predicaments in dealing with its relationship vis-à-vis Syria and they can broadly be classified as strategic threats and political predicaments.
(a) Prolonged Emphasis
Since Israel's independence, the Golan occupied an important place in Israel's strategic-political calculation to the point that the actual course of events was often overshadowed by more popular nationalistic perceptions. The "creeping annexation" of the Demilitarised Zone by Israel in the earlier years was rarely discussed.6 In private conversations, Moshe Dayan who was the defence minister during the 1967 War, admitted that when Israel opened the northern front, "the Syrians, on the fourth day of the war, were not a threat to us."7 In popular perceptions, however, the capture of the Golan Heights during the June 1967 War was portrayed as "crucial" because "the Syrian army had harassed Northern Israel for many years."8 In the words of Meir Amit, Mossad, chief at that time, the capture of the Golan was essential and was delayed "only because Dayan, as Minister of Defence, from the tactical or operational point of view wanted to do it that way."9
Successive Israeli governments projected the Golan as indispensable to their country's national security. Presenting the government after the 1969 election, Prime Minister Golda Meir outlined the polices of the new government vis-à-vis the occupied territories: "Agreed, secured and recognised borders will be laid down in the peace treaties...Without a peace treaty, Israel will continue to maintain, in full, the situation as established by the cease-fire and will consolidate its position in accordance with the vital requirements of its security and development."10 The Galilee document that outlined the Labour-alignment's policy towards the occupied territories in mid-August 1973, suggested establishing new settlements on the Golan.11
For long, the Labour Party's position on the Golan reflected the present position of the Israeli right. What could Israel offer Syria for making peace with the Jewish state? Without hesitation, Rabin told Davar: "Peace."12 He ruled out any additional interim agreement with Syria because "Israel's possibility of manoeuvre on the Golan Heights is very limited."13 Yigal Allon, the architect of post-1967 Israeli plans for the West Bank, was confident that "even if we give up all of the Golan Heights, Damascus will not agree to normalise relations."14 In 1975, Defence Minister Shimon Peres outlined a peace plan that would include "territorial continuity in Sinai, Golan Heights and settlements on the Golan Heights for the defence of the valleys, and the Jordan as the border from which Israel's security commences."15 Likewise, in December 1975, Prime Minister Rabin declared that "even in the context of a real peace, we will not go down from the Golan Heights, though that does not mean we have to stick to the present lines."16 Similarly, during the 1992 election campaign, he was not indifferent to the Golan's strategic value, a position that made his post-election policy domestically unpopular.
Since the late 1970s, Likud ably pursued the Labour Party's uncompromising posture and Prime Minister Begin declared that Israel "cannot descend from the Golan Heights. This is the general consensus I can now express."17 On the eve of the Madrid Conference, Prime Minister Shamir declared that all "political elements" in Israel agree that the Heights are "a vital component in the defence of Israel."18 In March 1991, former Chief of Staff and Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan warned that Israel should not forgo the Golan, "even if this means that no formal peace agreement is signed with Syria." Likewise, former Mossad chief Yitzhak Hofi was willing to forgo peace, "if the quid pro quo must be to return the Golan Heights, because peace is a relative situation and could change."19 During their tenures in the army, current Labour leader Ehud Barak (as chief of staff) and Netanyahu's Defence Minister Yitzhak Mordechai (as head of the Central Command) had strongly argued in favour of Israel retaining the Golan even during peace-time.20 In other words, at some point or another, every important Israeli leader has argued that any withdrawal from the Golan would severely compromise Israel's security and this makes a territorial compromise, an unpopular proposition.
(b) Strategic Asset
In spite of various arguments and explanations, the Golan is primarily a security issue and a strategic asset for Israel. There are suggestions that territorial concessions on the Golan, while diminishing important military advantages, would not expose Israel to a life-threatening surprise Syrian attack. In the words of Dan Horowitz, concessions on the Golan "will mean a risk in the narrow military-operative context, but not in the strategic context of a threat to Israel's survival."21 However, even in the era of non-conventional weapons and delivery systems, the territorial component has not lost its utility. The Golan is not just another landmass: about 62 km in length and 25 km in its greatest width, and about 300 metres higher than the remaining Israeli territory in the north, it is undoubtedly a strategic asset for anyone occupying the Heights.22 At its widest point, only 23 km separate Israel and Syria. Mount Hermon and Mount Avital provide two important natural monitoring posts and they play a pivotal role in the Israeli monitoring of troop movements in and around Damascus and along the Damascus-Beirut Highway. Over the years, Israel has established a series of monitoring posts and electronic listening devices on the Golan that are too vital to be compromised. From a purely military-strategic point of view, Israeli control and domination of high grounds on the Golan, are considered essential for the defence of Galilee Panhandle along the Israeli-Lebanese border and the Israeli shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Since 1973, there were no major conflicts or infiltration in the Golan Heights but the reasons are different. While the Labour Party and its allies attribute this to Syrian ability and willingness to honour its commitments, the Likud and its partners ascribe the silence to Israeli military strength and its control of the Heights. In November 1983, Defence Minister Moshe Arens reminded the Knesset that the Golan Heights was quiet "not because Assad believes in the principle of honouring one's commitments. It is quiet for reasons that should be known to you."23 It is widely recognised in Israel that the Syrian capital being just 50 km away from Israeli lines on the Heights, has ensured peace.24 However, as Defence Minister in the national unity government, Rabin, told the Knesset in October 1985, that "despite the Syrians' hostility, for 11 years they lived up to their commitment under the clauses of the disengagement agreement, and are preventing border terrorism."25 A couple of months later, he remarked that "the Syrians are scrupulously careful to carry out the Separation of Forces Agreement."26 Despite the Syrian intentions, it is essential to remember that Israel's presence on the Golan is a strong deterrence and Syrian reluctance to recognise its security demands in a post-withdrawal phase has only intensified Israeli anxieties.
(c) June 1967 Borders
At regular intervals, Israeli leaders have vehemently rejected the idea of withdrawing to the pre-1967 borders and this is one of the few issues that enjoys consensus among Israel's Jewish population.27 The issue was more emotional than territorial. On June 15, 1967, speaking in the Cabinet meeting to discuss the fate of the newly captured territory, the minister without portfolio, Begin, remarked: "Israel will remain on the Golan Heights until Syria signs a peace treaty, and when Syria agrees, even then (Israel) will not return the area before Syria agrees to the terms of the Golan Heights' demilitarisation."28 In June 1974, Prime Minister Rabin ruled out withdrawing to the June 4, 1967, lines "even within the context of a peace treaty."29 While ruling out a complete withdrawal, various Israeli governments have expressed a willingness to "negotiate" the borders. For instance, in August 1977, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan suggested that Israel was ready "to negotiate the line in the Golan Heights with Syria in order to satisfy the parties with the peace line."30 Elsewhere, he claimed that he was "one of those involved, perhaps even the initiator after the Six-Day War, in our proposing to return ... the Golan Heights, with certain adjustments and safeguards for our security interests, within the framework of peace agreements."31 Any Israeli endorsement of the June 1967 borders vis-à-vis the Golan, has serious implications for Israeli policies vis-à-vis the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the most sensitive issue of Jerusalem. It is, therefore, not surprising that even the Oslo Accords do not commit Israel to a return to the pre-1967 positions.
How does one reconcile this Israeli position with the demands of UN Security Council Resolution 242? Until the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 338 following the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict, the question of "implementing" Resolution 242 was not an issue. While Egypt and Jordan accepted Resolution 242, Syrian acceptance was only tacit when it endorsed Resolution 338. The question of implementing Resolution 242 remains a contentious issue in the Israeli-Arab negotiations.32 After five months of deliberations, all the permanent members of the Council endorsed it because of its vague and ambiguous wording. Underscoring the "inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war" the resolution among others, calls for "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict." The absence of the definite article in the English version of the resolution was neither accidental nor due to carelessness. While the Arab countries have interpreted it to mean all the territories, Israel and its supporters have argued that it calls for a withdrawal from some, but not necessarily all, of the occupied territories. The issue remains unsettled even three decades later.
The resolution also calls for "respect for, and acknowledgement of, the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognised boundaries, free from threat or acts of force." The boundaries should not only be "secure" but also "recognised." This implies that the extent of Israeli withdrawal, complete or partial, therefore, would have to be recognised by both parties and any changes in the border would have to be mutually acceptable. In short, Syrian endorsement is essential for any partial Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.
(a) Syrian Claims
Unlike the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Golan has been part of a sovereign territory and its ownership has never been in doubt. At least in this context, this is similar to the Sinai Peninsula captured during the June War. Overruling the objectives of the pre-state Zionist leadership, the League of Nations accepted the British decision to cede the Golan to the French-controlled Syria and the international community recognised it as Syrian territory upon that country's independence in 1946. The Golan, therefore, was not part of the 1947 UN plan to partition Palestine, the plan that provided the international sanction towards the establishment of the Jewish State. Israel recognised the Syrian sovereignty during and after the Armistice Agreement of 1949. As would be discussed, in spite of the prolonged occupation and imposition of Israeli laws, the Syrian sovereignty was not in doubt. Unlike the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Golan was not in a "legal vacuum" when Israel captured it.
Is the Golan important to Syria? At regular intervals, some political and military leaders have questioned its importance for Syria. For instance, underscoring its strategic importance for Israel, Defence Minister Arens wondered that "it is difficult to see why the Golan Heights, which are for Syria a small fraction of Syrian territory, an almost insignificant fraction of Syrian territory, should become the major dimension of future relations between Israel and Syria."33 In the words of another security analyst, the Golan Heights "is a tiny area" in comparison to all of Syria and is not as important to Syria as Sinai was important to Egypt. In his view, Syria is primarily concerned about Israeli presence on the Heights and is uncomfortable about the Israeli Army being relatively close to Damascus. Other than ideological concerns and prestige, the area does "not appear to be of pressing interest to Syria."34 Assad's willingness to go to Madrid without an Israeli commitment for a full withdrawal is viewed as a sign of possible "Syrian recognition of at least some of Israel's claims to the Golan Heights."35 The Golan is "a purely offensive asset" for Syria in implementing its strategic objectives vis-à-vis Israel.36 If Syria is willing to accept Israel's existence, "it would also be ready to cede the Golan Heights" and, hence, the government should be advised to postpone all negotiations, until Syria "is ready to end the conflict without recovering the Golan."37 Israel, according to this view, could enter into negotiations with Syria without reaching a peace agreement.38
Unfortunately for Israel, Syria never renounced its claims over the Golan. It is rather unrealistic to expect any Syrian government to relinquish its claims and thereby "betray" the trust of the people.39 Political coercion, military pressures or financial inducements from outside would be insufficient to influence the basic Syrian position vis-à-vis the Golan Heights. Furthermore, much to the consternation and displeasure of his domestic critics, Foreign Minister Peres admitted that Israel recognises Syria's sovereignty over the Golan.40 The international community, including the US, has refused to accept or recognise the Israeli occupation of the Golan. Though it prevented the Security Council from imposing punitive sanctions against Israel, the US voted for the Council resolution condemning the Israeli actions concerning the Heights.
In seeking to recover the Golan, however, Syria has been adopting different strategic postures. For long, military means remained the principal Syrian option vis-à-vis the Golan. President Anwar Sadat's decision to break ranks with other Arab countries and to seek a separate peace with Israel diminished the prospects of a Syrian military option. The demise of the Soviet Union meant the disappearance of the chief patron. Syria participating in the Madrid process is largely viewed as President Assad's desire or compulsion to follow President Sadat's footsteps and replace the military option by political struggle.41 This diplomatic posture, however, has not inhibited Syria from pursuing a proxy military option through Lebanon and the militiamen in the south. Of late, a number of Israeli leaders, including President Ezer Weizman, publicly admit that peace with Syria is essential for peace in northern Israel. The growing debate for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Southern Lebanon can partly be attributed to Syria's proxy war in Lebanon.42
(b) The Golan Law
Prime Minister Begin's decision to suddenly impose the Israeli laws on the Golan Heights presents a legal-political battle for Israel. Presenting his government before the Knesset on June 20, 1977, he gave clear indications of his intentions vis-à-vis the occupied territories. He promised that the laws of Israel would not be applied to all the territory of the Land of Israel "as long as negotiations are being conducted on a peace treaty between Israel and its neighbours." He went on to declare: "The matter will be determined by the choice of proper timing, the political judgement of the Government, and the approval of the Knesset after a special debate."43 This statement outlining Begin's government came long before the Camp David Accord, the presumable catalyst for the Golan Law.
On December 14, 1981, much to the surprise of his Cabinet colleagues, Prime Minister Begin summoned his ministers to his sick-bed in Jerusalem and informed them of his intention to pass a law annexing the Golan Heights that very same day. The Cabinet approved his proposal with lightning speed and later in the day, the Knesset adopted the motion by a majority of 63 to 21 votes. The mandatory procedure of three separate readings was dispensed with and the motion was passed without serious deliberations. Reflecting on the prevailing mood of the public, the Labour Party restricted its criticism only to the procedural aspect of the problem and as many as eight Labour Members of the Knesset (MKs) voted for the Bill that declared that "the law, jurisdiction and administration of the State shall apply to the Golan Heights." "Implacable" Syrian hostility towards Israel, Begin argued, justified the Israeli action, and, remarked that a few days earlier the Syrian president had rejected any ties with Israel, even if the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) were to recognise Israel. Three days later, on December 17, 1981, the UN Security Council unanimously demanded to rescind the move.44
Justifying the action, Defence Minister Ariel Sharon remarked that there "could be room for surprise at the timing, but not regarding the subject itself" because the issue was at "the centre of constant public debate." He went on to add that because of their security importance, Israel would never descend from the Golan Heights.45 Foreign Minister Shamir called it "an expression of the sovereign and free wish of the State of Israel to determine the framework of its life according to its rights and security requirements."46 Writing in the Labour Party daily Davar a day after the Golan Law was adopted, Yehuda Harel (currently an MK belonging to the Golan-lobby turned political party, Third Way) remarked: "Today we feel something of the feeling of May 15, 1948: A moment of climax preceded by prolonged effort." Israeli Ambassador Yehuda Blum told the UN that "recent Syrian acts and declarations have made it urgently necessary to bring to an end the anomalous situation regarding the Golan Heights." He went to declare that the Golan Law "does not preclude or impair" Israel's commitment to negotiate with Syria for a lasting peace based on Resolutions 242 and 338.47 Likewise, Prime Minister Begin told the Knesset that when Syria is prepared to conduct negotiations towards a peace treaty, "the negotiations for a peace treaty will commence at that exact moment, and no obstacles will stand in our way."48 Even though the move was not formally described as annexation, Israeli leaders have maintained that the law has made the Golan Heights an inseparable part of Israel.49 Very often, they are described as "sovereign territory" of Israel and that relinquishing sovereignty would inevitably lead to conflicts.50 Theoretically, the Knesset which imposed Israeli laws upon the Golan Heights, can also annul the Golan Law but as discussed elsewhere, the procedure is being made more difficult and in the words of one analyst, Israel would find it more difficult "to dismantle settlements and cede territory than to repeal the 1981 law."51
The disputed nature of the Golden Heights did not inhibit Israel from establishing Jewish settlements and these activities began on July 14, 1967, when Marom Golan was established in the northern Golan as a Moshav settlement.52 This move, pre-dating the Khartoum Summit, clearly underscored Israel's intentions to retain at least some of the Golan in any future settlement with Syria.53 Since 1967, Israel established 33 Jewish settlements on the Golan Heights and except for the urban locality of Katzrin, they are kibbutz or Moshav settlements. Most of these settlements were established primarily while the Labour Party was in power and have been nurtured and strengthened by every Israeli government since 1967. Unlike the West Bank, there is no distinction between "security" and "political" settlements in the Golan and all the activities were treated as vital for the security of Israel. These settlements are an expression of the government's determination to retain the area because "even under a peace treaty, the Golan Heights should be within Israel's jurisdiction."54 Foreign Minister Dayan declared that Israel would have to stay in the Golan Heights and "to stay means including Israeli settlements there."55
Though the Israeli Army removed the Yamit settlement in Sinai and established a precedent, the question of dismantling the settlements remains an emotional and highly charged issue in Israel. Having lost credibility within the party and the ruling coalition over Yamit, Prime Minister Begin became more vocal against such actions in future. At regular intervals, he and his colleagues reminded the public that the government would not dismantle Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan. For Foreign Minister Shamir, Yamit was the last because the Golan "will never be transferred to foreign rule. There will never be another reason to evacuate Israeli settlements."56 The protracted nature of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is partly the result of Israel's inability to contemplate removing certain isolated and sparsely populated Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the past, a number of rabbis had even issued a ruling based on the halacha ruling prohibiting the soldiers from removing any Jewish settlements. As a result, notwithstanding their commitment for a territorial compromise, both Rabin and Peres deliberately avoided making public statements about dismantling any settlements on the Golan. This posture continued during the tenure of Netanyahu.
If the dismantling of settlements is controversial and politically explosive, can the Jewish settlers be allowed to live under Syrian sovereignty? It is essential to remember that equality and tolerance towards ethnic, linguistic, racial and religious minorities are still alien in the Middle East. Suppression and subjugation have often been the common fate of the ethnic minorities of this region. The question of Jews living under the Ba'athist regime is further complicated by the Zionist ideals because Israel is officially committed to "rescuing" Jews living in Syria and other Arab states. In other words, the settlers being allowed to live under Syrian sovereignty (or for that matter under Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza) would go against the basic tenets of Zionism. In short, in the eyes of the majority of Israelis, the settlements can neither be dismantled nor allowed to stay under Syrian sovereignty.
(d) Pro-Golan Lobby
In spite of government concessions, financial subsidiaries and security-ideological contents, the population of these settlements is rather small. Factors such as lack of economic opportunities, distance from major population centres, security concerns, uncertainties about the future and the Yamit precedent have inhibited the population growth of the Golan settlements. After thirty years of continued official support and endorsement, about 15,000 Israelis live in the Golan. The numerical strength of the settlement population, however, does not reflect the political support of the pro-Golan lobby. For instance, the latest settlement, Dor HaGolan, was established in August 1994, while the Israeli government was publicly declaring its willingness to seek peace with Syria through a territorial compromise.
Though continued public expenditure on settlement-related infrastructure activities makes peace with Syria politically problematic and financially costlier, it also underscores the influence of the Golan lobby. The opposition from within a section of the Labour Party greatly hampered Rabin's ability to accelerate the negotiations with Syria. Likewise, the presence of the Golan lobby turned political party Third Way, in the Netanyahu-led coalition considerably diminished the chances of a settlement that would involve any Israeli withdrawal. In other words, though small in number, Israeli negotiating positions are seriously influenced by the presence of the settlements and the support that they generate in other parts of Israel.
On January 17, 1994, days after the Geneva Summit meeting between US President Bill Clinton and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, Rabin's close ally and Deputy Defence Minister Mordechai Gur told the Knesset that in case of a "significant" territorial concessions on the Golan Heights, "the government will put the issue to a referendum."57 In August, Rabin declared that "the people will decide on what it is prepared to give up in order to reach peace. I do not see this as being subject only to a Knesset decision."58 The following month, he reiterated that instead of post-facto ratification, "a draft peace treaty" would be brought before the public.59 This move, not anchored in law and never followed when Israel took fateful decisions in the past concerning the Golan, was primarily the result of strong domestic opposition to territorial concessions to Syria.
The progress on the Israeli-Syrian negotiations propelled the supporters of Israel retaining the Golan Heights to demand a "special majority" to annul or modify the 1981 Golan Law and to the formation of a Golan lobby led by maverick Labour MK and present Minister for Public Security Avigdor Kahalani. Supported by Labour rebels, the Opposition has been suggesting a "special majority" to decide the fate of the Golan.60 Though normal in any democratic environment, the issue became controversial when a section of the right began to question the "right" of the minority non-Jewish population to participate and decide on such a sensitive issue. After prolonged unsuccessful attempts in the past, in July 1997, the Knesset passed the preliminary reading of a Bill demanding the support of 80 MKs to modify the Golan Law.61
Furthermore, while it had fought on more than one front militarily, Israel finds it difficult to handle, and progress in, more than one front at the negotiation tables. The diplomatic progress with one Arab partner has often stiffened its position vis-à-vis other interlocutors. The Camp David Accord, for instance, led to the hardening of its position towards the Golan. Likewise, the urgency of the Syrian front receded following the conclusion of the Oslo Agreement and the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty.62
(e) The Sinai Precedent
The Sinai precedent hampers Israel's diplomatic manoeuvring over the Golan. For long, the Israeli leadership was aware of the comparisons between the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights and the possibility of Israel adopting or being compelled to adopt similar postures. Days after the signing of the 1975 Interim Agreement with Egypt, Prime Minister Rabin told the BBC that unlike Sinai, the Golan "is much more limited. The terrain is different. We have settlements there. Therefore, practically there is almost non-existence of room for manoeuvring that is required in the context of any interim agreement", similar to the one being signed over Sinai.63 Likewise, when Israel completed the Sinai withdrawal, Prime Minister Begin was asked: "Suppose Syria got a new leader and said: 'We'll give you peace if you'll give back the Golan Heights.' Would you return the Golan Heights?" Rejecting the comparison, Begin declared that Israel wants "peace with Syria as well on the basis that in the Golan Heights we apply to it our law, jurisdiction of the State of Israel."64 In short, "Peace with Golan" was a popular and at times official slogan in Israel. Israel successfully throttled President Sadat's moves to link the Sinai issue with the Golan problem and it was not accidental that the Camp David Accord that mentioned the Palestinian problems was silent about the Golan Heights. On the contrary, in a letter to President Sadat, PM Begin wrote that Israeli settlements, including those on the Golan Heights, "are legal and legitimate and they are an integral part of our national security. None of them will ever be removed."65
Conscious of the Syrian demand for a complete Israeli withdrawal, Rabin reminded the public of the Sinai precedent and hoped that he would not be forced the pay the price the Likud government paid to Egypt in exchange for peace.66 Elsewhere, he observed that every Arab leader sees this as a precedent "that they would not...be ready to depart from."67 He also warned "those who tell you that we can achieve peace just for peace, peace with the whole of Golan Heights, lie to you. If they could, why didn't they succeed to achieve one kilometre of the area of the Sinai? ..." 68 In preparing the public for a substantial Israeli withdrawal Rabin often brought forth the Sinai predicament.69
(f) Ideological Predicament
Unlike the West Bank and Gaza, the Golan occupies a marginal role in the ideological debate in Israel. The issue of the Golan Heights being a part of Eretz-Israel, the Biblical Land of Israel, rarely evokes a unanimous stand. Though the historical link is rather weak, the presence of a large Jewish community in the Golan around the 13th century BC and its participation in the revolt against the Romans during 68-70 AD evoke and establish certain historical connections to the Golan.70 For long, the Labour Party sought and presented the Golan through its military-security importance, and for the left, the Golan was not a "sanctified area" but rather a "strategic asset", and Foreign Minister Dayan admitted that the Golan "is not part of our ancestors' land."71 However, the political right considers the Golan an integral part of the Land of Israel and hence an indivisible part of Israel. In short, you do not annex what belongs to you.72 What about the peace that Israel achieved in exchange for territory? Shamir who opposed the Camp David Accords was categorical: Sinai was not part of the Land of Israel, while the Golan is.73 In the process, the right is presenting the Golan Heights as historically significant to the Jewish people as Jerusalem, Hebron or other places and thereby manages to consolidate the opposition to a territorial compromise.74
If continued supply of oil was a contentious issue during negotiations over Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, water is a major impediment on the Golan front. The Heights and the surrounding areas are vital for Israel's water supplies and the Banias Spring that lies at the base of the north-western Golan escarpment, constitutes about 20 percent of the Jordan's flow into the Lake Tiberias. Both the spring and the Banias River within Syria came under Israeli control in 1967. A number of pre-1967 Israeli-Syrian confrontations revolved around the attempts of either party to divert and change the flow of water into the Jordan River. At present, as much as 30 per cent of Israel's water supply comes from Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) which lies on the southern end of the Heights. Israeli withdrawal would place three major tributaries of the Jordan River namely Hatzbani, Dan and Banias Rivers, under Syrian control, thereby, undermining the flow into the Kinneret.75 While the headwaters of the Jordan River lie in the area of Mount Hermon, an Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 borders, would place Syria along the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Even if demilitarised, Syria would be sharing the waters of the Sea of Galilee.
Though it managed without the Golan water before 1967, with its limited natural resources, the question of water rights would play an important role in Israel's negotiation strategy concerning the Golan.76 Just like the Palestinians, the Syrians would be reminded of Israel's need for continued supply of water and the policy statement of PM Netanyahu commits the government to safeguarding Israel's "vital water supplies, from water resources on the Golan Heights." Elsewhere the statement argues that the Golan is "essential to the security of the state and its water resources."77
Rabin and Golan
A brief examination of Rabin's position since 1992 would be essential for a proper understanding of the problems surrounding any Israeli withdrawal from the Golan. Discarding the "peace-for-peace" formula of his Likud predecessors, Rabin reiterated that the implementation of UN Resolutions 242 and 338 would include the Syrian front and formally added territorial component to the bilateral negotiations. Though the party manifesto declared its support for a territory-for-peace even vis-à-vis Syria, during the 1992 election campaign Rabin repeatedly argued that Israel would not retreat from the Golan Heights, a statement that haunted him until his assassination. Though publicly unwilling to commit to a complete Israeli withdrawal, Rabin repudiated the idea of "peace- with-Golan" and warned his countrymen that Israel would eventually have to choose either one of them. In preparing the public for a territorial compromise, he gradually talked about an Israeli readiness to withdraw on the Golan Heights and not from the Golan Heights. In October 1992, he told the Knesset that the government was "speaking of withdrawal on the Golan Heights, not from the Golan Heights." He made this conditional upon Syria's willingness to sign a peace agreement that would be independent and unconditional "on developments in the peace negotiations with other Arab delegations."78 At the same time, to prevent the erosion of his support among Golan residents and their supporters in other parts of the country, he promised to continue the development of Jewish settlements until a peace agreement was signed. By offering a referendum on the draft peace agreement with Syria, he sought to mitigate his domestic critics, especially those who questioned his "dependence upon Arab parties" for the survival of the government.
While agreeing to withdraw the armed forces "to secure and recognise borders", he was unwilling to enter into "the dimensions of withdrawal without knowing what kind of peace we will get."79 In his view "peace" would include, "open frontiers for the movement of peace and goods across, and peaceful relations between the two countries including embassies in the two capitals, trade and policies encouraging normalisation between the peoples" and began to admit that under certain conditions, Israel was prepared to withdraw from the Golan Heights.80 In private and in absolute secrecy, he conveyed an unprecedented willingness to withdraw to the June 4, 1967, borders and according to chief Syrian negotiator and its ambassador in Washington Walid Al-Moualem, the offer was made in July 1994.81 Since then, Rabin began to argue for a "four legs of the table" namely withdrawal, normalisation, security arrangements and the time-table of fulfilment and without outlining the territorial dimension; he began to argue that the depth of Israeli withdrawal would depend upon the depth of Syrian peace. Viewed in this context, his assassination in November 1995 and the defeat of Peres in May 1996 were serious setbacks to this process of negotiating a peaceful settlement. Until Barak's election, the process largely remained frozen.
Being the last player in the Arab-Israeli conflict to seek peace with Israel, Syria's leverages are limited. Being the first Arab leader to recognise the Jewish state, Sadat's gestures carried enormous political significance and benefits. The Syrian position is exactly the opposite. Out of the five major players in the Middle East conflict, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians have made separate peace with Israel. Except for Lebanon, which remains under its control and domination, Syria remains the only party whose negotiations with Israel are conducted through the Americans. Moreover, since the Oslo Accord, a number of Arab countries have established consular missions in Israel and allowed Israeli missions in their countries, thereby, signalling the cessation of Israel's political isolation in the Arab and Islamic world.
On the other side, whether a complete Israeli withdrawal would be sufficient for a peaceful relationship between Israel and Syria is difficult to predict. It is, however, essential to remember that without a complete Israeli withdrawal, Israeli-Syrian peace is unlikely. While it might not ensure it, withdrawal is a pre-condition for peace. Significant segments of the Israeli population consider "peace-with-Golan" an unrealistic if not dangerous slogan. Unlike the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan is a much smaller area but contains more serious problems for any Israeli government. Prolonged emphasis of the Heights has only made the problem more difficult to solve. Any Israeli government would have to overcome a host of domestic difficulties based on security, political, economic and psychological considerations in deciding the fate of the Golan. Even an Israeli government most committed to peace with Syria has no easy solutions to these contentious issues. For long, Israeli leaders had argued that Israeli control over Sharm al-Sheikh was preferable to peace without Sharm al-Sheikh. At the same time, when the appropriate time came, peace prevailed over Sharm al-Sheikh. The fate of the Golan Heights might not be different; but being the last Arab power to negotiate with the Jewish state, Syria's political leverage remains limited and circumspect.
1. Rabin's address to the Keren Hayesod Conference, June 22, 1994. Unless otherwise mentioned, all the official Israeli statement and pronouncements are taken from Meron Medzini, ed., Israel's Foreign Relations: Selected Documents (Jerusalem: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1976ff) Till now, fourteen volumes have been published under this series, covering 1947-1992. The author is grateful to Ammon, Avi, Naava and Riccardo for their extremely generous and valuable help.
2. For most of its term, the Rabin-Peres government enjoyed a slender margin in the Knesset, often commanding the support of just 61 MKs in the 120-member Knesset. Barak a on the other hand, has, broad government which enjoys the support of over 77 MKs.
3. Likewise, another Israeli attempt, this time a partial Golan withdrawal, was quietly shelved following the War of Attrition in Sinai. For a discussion, see Ayreh Shalev, Israel and Syria: Peace and Security on the Golan (Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Post, 1994), pp. 51-9.
4. Abdul Ghani Rafei, "The Syrian Position Towards Israel", The Middle East Review, nos. 5-6, Fall 1975, p. 37.
5. Interview of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, The Jerusalem Post, September 19, 1990.
6. In the words of Aryeh Shalev who participated in the Israeli-Syria Mixed Armistice Commission, "Israel was not always the innocent lamb and Syria not always the wolf. In the first years of the armistice regime, it was Israel that tried unilaterally to effect changes in the status quo in the (demilitarised zone)." Shalev, n. 3, p. 45. As a result, it is possible to argue that "any future DMZ should extend on both sides of the Israel-Syria border, with each party exercising exclusive jurisdiction over the zone on its side of the border." Muhammad Muslih, "The Golan: Israel, Syria and Strategic Calculations", Middle East Journal, vol. 47, no. 4, Autumn, 1993, p. 631.
7. The interviews conducted by Ha'aretz reporter Rami Tal on November 22, 1976, and January 4, 1977, were kept confidential at the request of Dayan and Yedi'ot Aharonot published them more than 20 years later. For the complete text of the interview, see Rami Tal, "Moshe Dayan: Introspection", Yedi'ot Aharonot, April 27, 1997, in FBIS-NES-97-113, June 13, 1997. For a brief assessment of Dayan's disclosure see, Amnon Dankner, "The Myth of the Golan Heights", Ha'aretz, May 5, 1997. See also interview with Walid al-Moualem, Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 26, no. 2, Winter 1997, p. 90.
8. Andrew Duncan, "Land for Peace: Israel's Choice", Israel Affairs, vol. 2, no. 1, Autumn 1995, p. 59.
9. Richard B. Parker, ed., The Six-Day War: A Retrospective (Gainesville, Fl: University Press of Florida, 1996), p. 221.
10. Basic Foreign Policy Principles, December 15, 1969.
11. Mordechai Gazit, The Peace Process 1969-1973: Efforts and Contacts (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Papers on Peace Problems, no. 35, 1983), p. 149.
12. Prime Minister Rabin's interview to Davar, September 16, 1974.
13. Prime Minister Rabin's interview to Israel TV, June 3, 1975.
14. Speech of Foreign Minister Yigal Allon at the Tel Aviv University, December 26, 1974.
15. Address of Defence Minister Shimon Peres to the Command and Staff College, August 28, 1975.
16. Prime Minister Rabin's interview to Newsweek, December 7, 1975.
17. Interview of Prime Minister Begin, NBC TV, November 16, 1980.
18. Statement of Prime Minister Shamir in the Knesset, October 7, 1991.
19. Quoted in Shalev, n. 3, p. 66.
20. The Jerusalem Post, September 5, 1994.
21. Dan Horowitz, "The Israeli Concept of National Security", in Avner Yaniv, ed., National Security and Democracy in Israel (Boulder, Colo: Lynne Rienner, 1993), p. 25.
22. For, detailed technical discussion, see Shalev, n. 3, pp. 101-115. For a detailed discussion about the security risks, see pp. 124-55.
23. Statement of Minister Moshe Arens in the Knesset, November 14, 1983.
24. Aharon Levron, Israeli Strategy After Desert Storm: Lessons of the Second Gulf War (London: Frank Cass, 1997), p. 153-4; David Eshel, "The Golan Heights: A Vital Strategic Asset for Israel", in Efraim Karsh, ed., From Rabin to Netanyahu: Israel's Troubled Agenda (London: Frank Cass, 1997), p. 233.
25. Defence Minister Rabin's statement to the Knesset, October 21, 1985.
26. Defence Minister Rabin's interview to Israel TV, December 30, 1985.
27. In his victory speech, hours after the polling ended, Barak once again reiterated Israel's refusal to return to the June 1967 borders. For the text of the speech, see Israel TV, May 17, 1999 IN SWB/ME/3538, May 19, 1999.
28. Quoted in Shalev, n. 3, p. 52.
29. Address in the Knesset by the prime minister on presenting his government, June 3, 1974.
30. Foreign Minister Dayan's Press conference, August 9, 1977.
31. Foreign Minister Dayan's statement to Israel TV, November 23, 1977.
32. Glenn Perry, "Security Council Resolution 242: The Withdrawal Clause", Middle East Journal, vol. 31, no. 4, Autumn 1977, pp. 413-33.
33. Interview of Defence Minister Moshe Arens, The Jerusalem Post, September 19, 1990.
34. Levron, n. 24, p. 104.
35. Eyal Zisser, "Syria and Israel: Toward a Change?", in Efraim Inbar, ed., Regional Security Regimes: Israel and it Neighbours (New York: State University of New York Press, 1995), 151.
36. Eshel, n. 24, p. 235.
37. Shalev, n. 3, p. 73.
38. For instance, while the international attention was focused on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Defence Minister Arens remarked: "Based on that single, rather unique precedent (namely peace with Egypt), to assume that every time Israel begins negotiations with an Arab country, there will also be an agreement, is a little over-optimistic." Interview of Defence Minister Arens, The Jerusalem Post, September 19, 1990.
39. Alon Ben-Meir, "Israel and Syria: The Search for a 'Risk-Free' Peace", Middle East Policy, vol. 4, no. 1-2, September 1995, p. 142; and M. Zuhair Diab, "The Prospects for Peace Between Israel and Syria: A Syrian View", in Efraim Karsh and Gregory Mahler, eds., Israel at the Crossroads: The Challenge of Peace (London: British Academic Press, 1994), p. 85.
40. Ben-Meir, Ibid., p. 146.
41. Levron, n. 24, p. 101; Zisser, n. 35, p. 154; Shalev, n. 3, p. 15; Alon Ben-Meir, "Why Syria Must Regain the Golan to Make Peace", Middle East Policy, vol. 5, no. 3, September 1997, p. 104.
42. Israeli pullout from southern Lebanon by mid-2000 was one of the principal election pledges of Barak and his allies.
43. The Basic Guidelines, June 20, 1977.
44. However, the attempt by the Council to impose punitive sanctions against Israel was throttled by the US veto in January 1982 while the General Assembly has been regularly adopting critical but ineffective resolutions condemning Israel over the Golan Law.
45. Sharon's interview to Israel TV, December 19, 1981.
46. Statement by Foreign Minister Shamir before the Knesset, December 23, 1981. He went to enumerate "hostile" statements by the Syrian leaders as the rationale for the Israeli decision.
47. Statement of Ambassador Blum in the UN, January 1, 1982.
48. This statement by Begin in December 1981 proved useful for Rabin when he began to adopt a more flexible position vis-a-vis Syria. Rabin's statement to the Knesset, September 14, 1992.
49. Interview of Prime Minister Shamir on Israel TV, July 25, 1992.
50. Interview of Prime Minister's Office Director-General Yossi Ben-Aharon, to Ma'ariv, October 13, 1991. Ben-Aharon was Israel's chief negotiator in the Syrian track and was often criticised in the Israeli media for his tactless approach and patronising tone during the five rounds of negotiations. By replacing him with academic Itamar Rabinvich following the June 1992 election, Rabin signalled a more positive attitude towards peace making.
51. Shalev, n. 3, p. 87.
52. Tayseen Mara'i and Usama R. Halabi, "Life Under Occupation in the Golan Heights", Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 22, no. 1, Autumn 1992, p. 88.
53. The Khartoum Arab Summit and three NOs often become a convenient excuse to justify subsequent Israeli policies. For instance, see President Chaim Herzog's speech before the European Parliament on February 12, 1985, and his speech before the Canadian Parliament on June 27, 1988.
54. Rabin's interview to Davar, September 16, 1974.
55. Dayan's address to Israel Bonds Leaders, January 23, 1979.
56. Interview of Foreign Minister Shamir in Yoman Ha'shavua, May 10, 1082.
57. Rabin, however, was hinting at the possibility of a referendum since mid-1993.
58. Prime Minister Rabin's interview, Israel Radio, August 1, 1994.
59. Prime Minister Rabin's comments on withdrawal, September 8, 1994.
60. The defeat and elimination of Third Way in the May 1999 Knesset election was a severe setback to the lobby. Following Barak's favourable statement concerning Israel's desire to secure a peace agreement with Syria, the activists have began re-grouping their efforts and protests.
61. Though the government expressed its opposition to the Bill moved by a coalition of MKs, a number of ministers, including the prime minister, voted for the motion.
62. According to chief Syrian negotiator Walid al-Moualem, "When (Rabin) moved on the Palestinian track in September 1993, for example, he informed us through the Americans that he could not proceed on the Syrian track because the Israeli public needed time to digest the Oslo Accords...It was only after the Israelis finalised Oslo II with the Palestinians in September 1995 that they turned to us and wanted to move very quickly." Interview with Walid al-Moualem, n. 7, p. 85.
63. Prime Minister Rabin's interview to the BBC, September 9, 1975.
64. Prime Minister Begin's interview to the NBC TV, April 25, 1982.
65. Begin's letter to Sadat, August 4, 1980.
66. Prime Minister Rabin's interview to Ma'ariv, September 27, 1992.
67. Prime Minister Rabin's address to the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors, October 25, 1993.
68. Rabin's address to the Keren Hayesod Conference, June 22, 1994.
69. Comparison with the Sinai precedent would be incomplete without examining certain operational situations. In return for a complete Israeli withdrawal and removal of Jewish settlements in Sinai, Egypt had accepted certain restrictions upon its soil. They include phased Israeli withdrawal, a vast demilitarised zone without any corresponding restrictions upon the Israeli side of the border, additional limitations of military deployment in additional areas of Sinai and the stationing of a multilateral monitoring force along the Egyptian side of the border. The Egyptian precedence, thus, is not without its share of problems for Syria and, for instance, any substantial Syrian demilitarisation beyond Golan would severely expose its capital to Israeli strikes.
70. Yael Yishai, "Israeli Annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights: Factors and Processes", Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 22, no. 1, January 1985, p. 51; and Duncan, n. 8, p. 65.
71. Quoted in Yishai, Ibid., p. 51.
72. Burce A. Hurwitz, "The Legal Status of the Golan Heights", Middle East Focus, vol. 10, no. 4, Summer 1988, p. 10.
73. Interview of Prime Minister Shamir to Israel TV, July 25, 1991.
74. One of the pro-Golan lobby, for example, is called "Gamla shall not fall again."
75. Peter Hirschberg, "A Huge Price to Pay for Peace", The Jerusalem Report, February 10, 1994, pp. 18-19.
76. Ben-Meir, n. 39, p. 147.
77. Elsewhere, the document declares that Israel would "conduct negotiations with Syria without preconditions." For an evaluation of this statement see, P.R. Kumaraswamy, "Benjamin Netanyahu's Policy Statement: An Assessment", Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 20, no. 2, Winter 1996, pp. 1-23.
78. Rabin's statement in the Knesset, October 26, 1992.
79. Rabin's interview on ABC TV, February 7, 1993.
80. Rabin's interview to Die Welt, February 19, 1993. This has been his position concerning peace and, for instance, on June 3, 1974, he told the Knesset that true peace "is not merely peace between diplomatic representatives, but peace between the peoples, a peace which finds expression daily, in open borders, across which contact can be established in all spheres of life."
81. Interview with Walid al-Moualem, n. 7, p. 84. According to Israeli media reports, Peres was not aware of this offer until he was briefed by President Clinton, hours after Rabin's funeral. Yedi'ot Aharonot, September 11, 1996, in FBIS-NES-96-178, September 13, 1996.