Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Holding Onto The Golan

May 27, 2008

I can't remember how many columns I have written, in The New York Sun and other places, against the idea of returning the entire Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a largely worthless peace treaty.

The first of them was published back in 1994, when Yitzhak Rabin gave the Syrians his renowned "deposit," an advance promise, which has haunted all subsequent Israeli governments, to cede the whole Golan if all other issues were resolved.

Every few years another supposed Israeli-Syrian deal of this sort hits the headlines; every few years I write another column against it; every few years it fades away until the next time.

So what's left to say now that the next time has again become this time? That one can only hope that this time, too, it will soon become last time? That all the reasons for not surrendering the Golan that have been valid in the past are more valid than ever today, especially when the Syrian regime has just been caught trying to develop clandestine nuclear weapons and is successfully in the process of helping Hezbollah take over Lebanon and the president of America thinks that yielding to its demands would be a bad idea?

That offering to give up the Golan would therefore be the most unpardonable act that could be committed by a government whose leader, Ehud Olmert, has close to a zero approval rate from the Israeli public and will soon have to resign, and possibly go to jail, because of his crooked finances? Or that this same public has shown itself when polled, time after time, to be against ceding the Golan and currently opposes doing so by 70% to 30%?

Let's talk about this public and the paradox it represents in terms of the Golan. It's no secret that every Israeli government that has offered to return the Golan has been heavily influenced by high army officers who have supported such a move and that this is true of the Olmert government, too. Nor is it a secret why the army's general staff has tended to take this position.

This is not because the Golan has no strategic value in the army's eyes. It is because the army fears that, should war with Syria break out over the Golan, or over some other issue like Iran, this value will be offset by the rain of Syrian missiles that will hit Israeli population centers, panicking their inhabitants, causing massive casualties, and forcing Israel to sue for a ceasefire before it can press its military advantage.

Is the Israeli public unaware of this danger? If it was before the 2005 war against Hezbollah, it certainly isn't any longer. It knows what happened then, and it knows that what would happen if the Syrians were to emulate Hezbollah's tactics would be far worse. If it doesn't agree with the army, this is because it has more faith in itself and in the army than the army does.

It has more faith in the army, because it believes in the army's deterrent power, which could pulverize Damascus if the Syrians attacked Tel Aviv or Haifa. (The army, apparently, does not believe that any Israeli government would allow it even to threaten pulverizing Damascus, let alone to do such a thing.) And it has more faith in itself because it believes that even if Tel Aviv and Haifa were attacked, it could hold out long enough for the army to do its job.

This is not to minimize how grim a worst-scene scenario might be. No one in Israel wants to see thousands or tens of thousands of Israeli casualties, or for that matter, hundreds of thousands or millions of Syrian casualties. It is simply to say that the Israeli public, besides justifiably feeling that the Golan is by now part of Israel and should remain so, is more realistic than either its army or its government.

It knows not only what the price of risking a war with Syria might be, it knows what the price of not risking one would be. Once the Arab world understands that Israel does not believe it can fight or win another war, and will not fight one to hold onto its own sovereign territory (which the Golan has been since 1980), Israel might as well go into receivership immediately, because it will in any case be ripped apart piece by piece, each time yielding another bit of itself to the latest Arab ultimatum.

Fortunately, this time, too, the Golan will not be traded for a peace treaty, in the first place, because the Olmert government will fall, and secondly, because if the government that succeeds it wishes to relinquish the Golan too, it will not be able to muster the 61 votes needed in the Knesset to do so. The Golan will remain Israel's for at least the next several years.

But the damage will have been done.

The Arabs and the rest of the world will have been told, louder and clearer than ever, that: 1) Israel agrees that the Golan belongs to Syria; 2) Israel does not want to fight for it; and 3) If a Syrian-Israeli peace is not achieved, Israel will be to blame and a Syrian resort to arms will be justifiable. The Rabin "deposit" will have been re-deposited with a clunk. Keeping the Golan, or hoping eventually to settle with the Syrians for part of it, will be made that much more difficult.

This is why the Olmert government's actions are so outrageous. For the sake of a diplomatic initiative that cannot succeed it is, in the months remaining before its prime minister has to stand trial on corruption charges, jeopardizing Israel's reputation and future. That Mr. Olmert may have plenty of time to reflect on this in prison is not much comfort.

Mr. Halkin is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.

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