Thursday, May 29, 2008

High Anxiety On The Golan

Joshua Mitnick
Israel Correspondent

Katzrin, Golan Heights — When Ramona Bar Lev first heard that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert confirmed the renewal of negotiations with the Syrian government to swap the Golan Heights for a peace deal, she felt sick.

“I became depressed for half the day,” said Bar Lev, a 38-year resident of the strategic plateau captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. “Then we got down to work.”Starting with the talks led by former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, the 20,000 Israelis living in the Golan Heights have grown accustomed to reports every few years about peace talks that involve giving the highlands back to Damascus. Even though more Israelis support keeping the Golan than East Jerusalem, every Israeli prime minister save for Ariel Sharon has discussed such a deal with the Syrians.

Indeed, Bar Lev, 57, head of public affairs for the Golan Settlements Council, was so immersed in the anti-government campaigns that she ticks off slogans from the campaigns of the 1990s: “Peace with the Golan,” “The People Are with the Golan,” and “Not Budging from the Golan.”

Stretching from the towering snow-capped Hermon Mountain range in the north to the Hamat Gader hot springs in the south, the Golan slope rises from the banks of the Sea of Galilee to offer a commanding view of Israel’s Hula Valley. The territory that is Israel’s northern security blanket combines cattle ranges, minefields, cherry picking and wine tasting.

This time around, the Golan residents start their battle against the government from an even stronger position. Thanks to its alliance with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, Syria is perceived in Israel as a rogue state. And given Israelis’ growing dissatisfaction with the fallout from concessions to Israel’s Arab neighbors, drumming up public support for such a deal will likely be difficult. In a Channel 2 poll conducted last week, only 22 percent of respondents said they’d give back the Golan in exchange for peace, while 70 percent opposed the swap.

“Look at the peace treaty with Egypt. We gave back all of the Sinai and that didn’t create normal relations,” she said. “It’s clear who Bashar Assad is and what he wants to do,” Bar Lev said, referring to the Syrian president.

As she spoke from her office in the sleepy commercial center of Katzrin, a delegation of Golan Heights leaders had traveled to Jerusalem to shore up the parliamentary lobby against giving back the Golan.

Members of the delegation said that members of Olmert’s coalition promised that they would block any agreement that involves returning the Golan Heights. The coalition opponents include the Sephardic fervently Orthodox Shas Party, as well as members of Olmert’s Kadima Party and the Labor Party.

The Golan settlers are hoping their lobby can pass a new Knesset law requiring a special majority of 70 or 80 lawmakers to ratify any peace treaty with the Syrians that requires territorial compromise on the Golan. They’d also like the parliament to pass a referendum law, which would create the legal basis for a national vote on a peace treaty.

“The Golan is sovereign territory,” said Shalom Ariel, a member of the Golan Settlements Council who visited Jerusalem on Tuesday. “The sovereignty can’t be under a question mark any more. Because no country gives up on its territory so easily.”

(Still, Ariel acknowledged that for all the public sentiment against giving back the Golan Heights, there aren’t enough parliament members who would support a resolution banning the government from cutting a land swap with the Syrians.)

Bar Lev first moved to the Golan in the years immediately after the 1967 war, for romance. She and Sami Bar Lev, who today is the mayor of Katrin, became the only Israelis to move into the Syrian town of Queneitra.

“We were Zionists,” she said. “We believed that we could build a new town in Queneitra.”

Unlike the religious nationalists who settled in the West Bank and Gaza, the Israelis who moved up to the Golan were heavily influenced by the Labor Zionism of the kibbutz movement.

The kibbutz movement eventually became a core Israeli constituency backing the concept of trading land for peace. Perhaps that’s the reason why the settler population in the Golan is only a fraction of the West Bank.

It also explains why many Golan residents describe themselves as peaceniks at heart who have grown disillusioned over the years.

Bar Lev’s arguments against giving back the Golan Heights challenge Syria’s legal and moral claim to ownership while asserting Israel’s historical and emotional ties to the territory.

While Syria forfeited its claim to the Golan by using the territory as a base to launch attacks on Israel, she said, the Jewish state has cultivated the wide-open stretch of land by encouraging tourism.

“This is the most beautiful part of the country from every category,” she said. “Beautiful people are living here.”

Underlying much of Israelis’ enthusiasm for holding on to the Golan is something that’s missing: a large Arab population. With only about 18,000 Druze who have the option to get Israeli ID cards, there is less angst about remaining in the Golan.

“What is special about the Golan Heights,” explained Yoni Dolev, a St. Paul, Minn., native who moved here 15 years ago, “is that it’s all Jewish. There are no Arab villages.”
Dolev, who directs the Golan Archeological Museum in Katzrin, reminisced about how the last serious effort at negotiations — the 2000 talks in Shepherdstown, W.Va. — actually spurred a boomlet of Israeli tourists who visited to express solidarity.
Withdrawal “is always a possibility, but we don’t want to think of that possibility,” he said, adding that he is “not worried at all right now,” because Olmert is too weak to give back the Golan.

Just a few miles up the road from the Katzrin town center, a combination tourist center-strip mall has sprung up against the backdrop of the Golan’s virgin plains. A 13-minute movie with surround sound presents the Golan as a Garden of Eden. Next door there’s a microbrew pub and a souvenir shop, with Golan apples retailing in a gift shop for 90 cents each.

Real estate developer Haim Ohayon said he’s betting the $5 million mall will be a gateway to the region for tourists. He’s also got several dozen housing units in Katzrin under construction.

Unlike most residents, he’s not opposed to talking to the Syrians, and expresses hope that Israel can lease the territory for 200 years while helping the Syrians develop on the other side of the border. But he quickly concedes it’s not a very realistic scenario.

“With the way the Syrians are behaving now? I wouldn’t give one meter back,” he said. “For peace with Syria there has to be a new world order.”

No comments: