November/December '99

MIDDLE ISRAEL: Wuthering Heights

While not agreeing with the abandonment of the Golan, we post this article for it's explanation of the thinking of those Israelis prepared to "give up the Golan for Peace with Syria".
By Amotz Asa-El

The Golan and I are old buddies.

Having spent the bulk of my military service and many subsequent months of miluim there, and having hiked its length, width and breadth, I am intimately familiar with its creeks, volcanoes and waterfalls.

To me, no site in Israel offers anything like the experience of a midsummer dive into the clear-water pool under the Zavitan waterfall, the spring-blossom smell of the apple orchards inside Mt. Bental's volcanic pit, or the sight of 20 bald eagles diving at early dusk off the Gamla waterfall.

And yet, all the reasons for holding onto the Golan - except one - don't hold water.

The most invalid argument is the one we have already used ad nauseam, namely the topographic superiority number.

Yes, the Golan does offer a superb advantage for anyone seeking to attack those living in its shadow. However, in 1967 we defeated the Syrians despite our lack of that asset. Moreover, opposite the Golan we have our own high land, the Naphtali ridge, from which we can disrupt military activity on the Heights, as the IDF indeed did in 1964, when tanks stationed not far from Kiryat Shmona stopped a Syrian attempt to divert the Jordan River's tributaries. And since we are about to resort to desalination to boost our water supplies, we have further reason to dismiss the Golan as key to our existence here.

In short, physically the Golan is a tactical rather than a strategic asset. Peace, by contrast, is a strategic asset, and as such is worth a trade-off whereby the Syrian army is pushed well beyond the outposts from which it harassed our farmers for 19 years, while allowing us to retain the tools with which to detect its movements early enough to respond as necessary.

A MORE emotional argument for retaining the Heights is history.

Any halfway sensitive Jew must be moved by the ruins of Katzrin's synagogue, particularly if he or she is imaginative enough to picture the place on a Friday night 1,500 years ago, when it had a roof, walls and furniture, and was filled with Jewish farmers in their best clothing as they welcomed the Sabbath.

However, despite the familiar slogan - "the Golan is part of Eretz Israel" - repeated this week by various politicians, the fact is that even an arch-hawk and super-cleric like the late Rabbi Shlomo Goren ruled that, halachically, the Golan is not part of Eretz Yisrael. Period.

Indeed, the Jewish settlement of the Golan flourished during the Byzantine period because of its location on the access route linking the Galilee with the Babylonian Diaspora. In other words, the discovery of ancient Jewish remnants on the Golan is of little relevance when it comes to deciding its future; judging by that criterion, we might as well also demand the Dura Europus ruins in northeast Syria, the Sardis synagogue in Asia Minor, and Rashi's beit midrash in Worms.

THEN, of course, we can cross the road from Katzrin to Gamla, and wonder about the Jews who - according to Josephus Flavius - committed mass suicide there as they did at Masada, after staging a heroic, if hopeless, battle against Vespasian's Roman troops. Although those people lived outside the halachic boundaries of the Promised Land, they still represented the antithesis of the stereotypical Exile Jew, whose servility even to the most obnoxious Gentile rule became legendary.

To this we should say three things:

First, while many faults can be attributed to Israelis, excessive pacifism isn't one of them. During 50 years of warring, we have more then upheld the Gamla heritage.

Secondly, the Gamla rebels - while heroic on the battlefield - were nonetheless geopolitically unrealistic, not to say downright ignorant. The war they waged ended in the colossal destruction that launched two millennia of persecution, displacement and wandering.

And thirdly, beyond the revolt of which the Gamla battle was a part, there lurked a provincial rejection of the outer world. Most Jews of the time did not share that provincialism, but they did so from afar, in places like Rome, Alexandria, Damascus or Nehardea.

We Middle Israelis, from the high-tech engineer in Herzliya and the flower exporter in Shadmot Devorah to the backpacker in Bolivia and the MBA student at Tel Hai College, while maintaining our identity by remaining headquartered here, want to harmonize with the big world. And so, while we admire their heroism, we find it difficult to see in Gamla's warriors political role models.

Which brings us to today's Golan settlers, who are by no means zealots.

THE MOST tragic thing about them is their long-standing effort - now hastily abandoned - to shun the rest of the post-'67 settlers, a thinly veiled attempt to portray the others as fanatics, not to say lunatics.

Yet there is one good argument in favor of the Golan settlers, namely that unlike West Bank and Gaza District settlers, they chose to live in an area largely devoid of Arabs.

Unfortunately, what they fail to mention is that this was made possible only by the June 1967 flight of a Syrian population, as the ruins of places like Dabburiye, Piq, Wasset, Nafah and Wasset attest.

Finally, there is the argument that no nation in its right mind willingly forfeits territory won in a war. The truth is that this is unfounded: Finland gave Stalin a slice of Karelia and didn't demand it back even when the USSR disintegrated. Denmark never sought from Germany the Schleswig-Holstein region, though it easily could have retained it after both world wars. And the US only this week parted with the Panama Canal, a strategic asset by any yardstick.

And so, with the full-peace package apparently on the way to the counter and the full-withdrawal pricetag neither avoidable nor unaffordable, and not even unreasonable, there remains only the question of the business partner.

And that's where it all goes - excuse the expression - downhill.

HAFEZ Assad not only rejected two golden full-peace opportunities - first when Sadat came here, and then when Shimon Peres succeeded Yitzhak Rabin - but he also presides over a crumbling economy tat the head of a regime that represents a minuscule part of his people.

That position, even for autocrats, is markedly different from that of Sadat, Hussein and Arafat when they began to deal with us, and is ominously reminiscent of our tragically aborted affairs with Iran's Shah and Lebanon's Maronites.

It's quite likely that Assad's people will some day - either before or after he clears the stage - do in Damascus what Ceausescu's flock did a decade ago in Bucharest. Should that day arrive, we don't want to be seen by the average Syrian as the ones who collaborated with the man who imposed the rule of a remote, mountainous tribe, and who once slaughtered 20,000 of his subjects.

Beyond that, there is the hutzpa factor.

ANY sober-minded Middle Israeli must wonder just what kind of guy we are dealing with who, even while ostensibly seeking peace with us, would not only refuse to personally meet with his Israeli counterpart, let alone pay us a visit the way Sadat did, but won't even allow his man to shake hands with ours.

When I first climbed the Golan, as a fourth-grader in Pessah 1968, we saw at Han el-Juhader - an abandoned medieval way-station - a Syrian jeep hanging from a lamp pole, where it had apparently been lifted by jubilant soldiers in the aftermath of the battles. It hung there like a flag of surrender, a monument to the arrogance that swept us in those heady days.

Nine years and one war later I returned there, this time as a soldier. Here and there we saw burnt tanks and makeshift monuments, somber testimonies of the pitched battle that had taken place there several years earlier. The pole and the jeep, like our conceit, were gone.

Today, the generosity we are displaying in this affair means, among many other things, that our arrogance is gone. The least we can demand of Assad - a bankrupt leader who has led his country to the brink of history's dustbin - is to be as humble as we have grown to be.

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