Talking About Peace
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
With the war in Lebanon scarcely over, Israel now faces a new “peace offensive” from Syria. Its initial reaction has been as inept as was its handling of the war against Hezbollah.
“We want peace — peace with Israel,” proclaims Bashar Al-Assad from Damascus. “The conditions for peace talks are not yet propitious,” replies Ehud Olmert from Jerusalem. This is a less than brilliant response. Prime Minister Olmert might as well have said in plain words, “Peace may be a concern of the Syrians, but Israelis couldn’t care less about it.”
Now in a certain sense, this is true. When Syria speaks of peace negotiations with Israel, it is speaking, as it has always done, of an agreement that would involve a total Israeli withdrawal from all of the Golan Heights. In fact, it is speaking of a more than total withdrawal, since it also is demanding a small sliver of pre-1967 Israel along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which its troops were in occupation of before the Six-Day War. In such a peace, Israel indeed has no interest.
And yet though it is perfectly true that, practically speaking, negotiations with Syria are pointless as long as the Syrians stick to this position, it is a diplomatic blunder of the first order for Israel to stress its disinclination to negotiate. To let the Syrians portray themselves as the side eager for peace, and Israel as the side indifferent to it, is to give Syria a victory it does not deserve.
What should the Israeli position be? The next time Prime Minister Olmert is asked about the Syrian overture, he might try responding this way:
“Israel welcomes the Syrian desire to resume peace negotiations and is ready to begin them at any time and in any place. We know what the Syrian demands are. All we ask is the right to put our own conditions on the table, too.
“These conditions are not the same as those of the 1992 to 1996 Rabin-Peres governments and the 1998 to 2000 Barak government, which were ready to cede the entire Golan to Syria. A majority of Israelis opposed such concessions at the time and an even greater majority opposes them today, and as the elected prime minister of a democracy, I will represent the views of my citizens.
“Israel considers the Golan Heights to be part of its territory. The area was officially annexed by it 25 years ago and has now been in its possession for nearly 40 years, almost the same amount of time that it belonged to Syria after its borders were drawn by the Anglo-French agreement of 1923. Furthermore, Syria itself has consistently refused to recognize those borders, which it claims were a colonialist machination — hence, its insistence on getting a part of pre-1967 Israel.
“Not only do we too, then, refuse to recognize them, but United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 makes it clear that Israel was never expected by the international community to withdraw entirely from the territories it occupied in 1967.
“We want peace as badly as Syria, and we are ready to make great concessions in order to achieve it. We are even ready, despite our justified claim to all of the Golan, to share it. In a word, we are ready for a territorial compromise. If Syria also is, negotiations can succeed.”
The fact of the matter is that, in terms of the vital interests of both Israel and Syria, a satisfactory compromise over the Golan Heights is possible. If one is familiar with the area, or has studied a topographical map of it, one knows that it is basically divided into four sections.
The first is its westernmost part, which comprises the shores of the Sea of Galilee and the Hula Valley, and the steep escarpments rising from them to the plateau above. It is vital that these remain in Israeli hands, both to protect the waters of the sea (really, a large lake), which is Israel’s main reservoir, as well as those of its tributary of, Banias River, and to keep Syrian troops off the high ground overlooking the valleys of northern Israel.
Vital to Israel, too, is the northernmost Golan, where the lower peaks of Mount Hermon (higher peaks are in Lebanon and Syria) rise to over 7,000 feet. Israel needs the Hermon for early warning and surveillance stations and would be ill-advised to give it up.
The northeastern section of the Golan, on the other hand, is vital to Syria and not to Israel, since in it a series of hilltops running from north to south control the approaches to Damascus. Moreover, at its extreme northern end are five Druze villages most of whose inhabitants would prefer to live in Syria. A reasonable peace agreement between the two countries would have this area returned to the Syrians.
Finally, there is the central and southern Golan, a gradually rising plateau whereon is located the Israeli city of Katzrin and most of the other Jewish settlements in which the Golan’s roughly 25,000 Israeli citizens live. This plateau could be divided on a roughly half-and-half basis, leaving Katzrin and its environs on the Israeli side, without giving anyone topographical superiority.
When Syria is ready for real negotiations over the Golan, and not simply for Israeli acquiescence to a Syrian diktat, this is what they should logically be about. Meanwhile, Israel should do everything it can to appear eager for such a compromise rather than make the world think that it shrinks from it. Talking about peace is not a game that only the Syrians should be allowed to play.
Mr. Halkin is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.