November/December '99

Ariel Sharon: Why Should Israel Reward Syria?

©The New York Times 28.12.99

JERUSALEM -- As the Israeli and the Syrian teams hurry back to Washington to resume negotiations, we are told this is the last and only chance for peace and that Israel must take it or face war. I believe this hasty approach is wrong, misleading and, above all, dangerous.

Israel must adopt an approach that will allow it to assess Syrian intentions over time before making any commitment to give up the commanding high grounds of the Golan Heights.

And since in Israel, the only real democracy in the Middle East, we like to do things the American way, I suggest we should also adopt the American model when negotiating the vital issue of control of the heights. The United States ended the cold war and brought stability to Western Europe because it understood that peace must be based on dealing effectively with the military capabilities of former adversaries and not on changes in intentions alone.

It kept the defensive shield of NATO intact, and any alterations in Western strength were based on reciprocity by the Soviet Union. If this kind of concern for security was essential in Europe, it is of critical importance in the shifting sands of the Middle East, and particularly when dealing with Syria.

What would United States negotiators have demanded if the Golan Heights were an American asset? I believe they would have stressed several points.

First, there must be no rewards for the aggressor. In most conflicts negotiated in this century, the aggressor paid by losing territory, as Japan and Germany did after World War II. Syria attacked Israel three times: in 1948, 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. From 1948 to 1967, it carried on a war of attrition against Israeli civilians by attempting to divert vital water resources from Israel.

Now Israel is asked to reward the aggressor by allowing return of the heights that rise over its territory in the valley below.

Knowledgeable statesmen and strategic experts have warned that, given the nondemocratic, authoritarian character of the Syrian regime and the unpredictability of what might take place in Syria after Hafez al-Assad is no longer in power, an Israeli agreement to return to the 1967 borders could cause it to end up with neither peace nor the Golan Heights.

Second, national defense requires territory. Most foreign defense experts and senior United States Army officers who have visited the Golan Heights or studied it repeat the categorical opinion that even in the missile age it is impossible to defend Israel effectively against a ground attack without military control of the Golan Heights. Syria has more than 4,000 tanks and 1,000 missiles, and the last and only line where an assault by them could be stopped runs through the center of the heights.

The missile threat and the vulnerability of Israel's home front do not allow Israeli military planners to rely any longer on a 24-hour rapid reserve mobilization system. The depth and space of the Golan can buy the time for regular forces to contain a surprise attack.

Furthermore, no country, including the United States, has ever given up territory and strategic depth just because it had advanced weapons systems or sophisticated early warning technology.

Third, Syrian armed forces must be reduced.Though Israel so far has not done so, it must insist that if it is to give up the defensive asset of the Golan Heights, a there must be not only a demilitarized zone on the Golan, but also a reduction of Syria's armed forces and the number of its missiles, and a dismantling of its arsenal of chemical warfare. Israel must also demand, though it has not yet done so, the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, where a continued Syrian military presence would reduce Israel's ability to defend its northern borders.

Israel has not made explicit demands, either, that the United States will not rearm Syria with advanced Western weapons after an agreement is reached. Such rearming would erode the Israeli ability to deter attack and cancel the Israeli qualitative edge in weaponry that the United States has pledged to maintain.

Fourth, Israel must have control of its water resources, which are of great long-term importance in an arid region where there are already shortages. A third of Israel's water flows from the Golan Heights and could be diverted there, and it must continue to have a presence near these water sources.

Finally, comprehensive peace must also include measures to contain threats from Iraq and Iran, which have weapons of mass destruction and could also be sources of terrorist activity. This is another important issue about which Israel has made no specific demands in the current negotiations.

Since 1975, successive United States administrations have been committed to the principles in President Gerald Ford's 1975 letter to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin backing Israel's stance that any peace agreement be predicated on Israel remaining on the Golan Heights.

"Even in times of peace, we must hold the Golan Heights,Ehud Barak, then the Israeli military chief of staff, said in 1994. And he was not alone. Mr. Rabin took the same position clearly in 1992, when he was prime minister.

Today Israel is asked to make so-called painful compromises: giving up the Golan and transferring to foreign troops a major building block of its overall capability to defend itself, deter attacks and assure itself of early warning if an attack should occur. It is also being asked to bear the painful cost of transferring 18,000 of its own citizens and uprooting 33 communities, deepening already dangerous divisions in Israeli society. All this for what is at best an uncertain nonbelligerency agreement? Thanks, but no thanks.

I believe Israel must keep the Golan Heights. Peace is important for Israel, and we all seek it. But not less is it important for the Syrians. Isn't it about time that they were asked to make some painful compromises as well?

Ariel Sharon is chairman of Israel's Likud Party.

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