Sunday, 14 February 2010

The Golan Heights and Peace – a fair exchange?

On Wednesday Israel's parliament, the Knesset, voted overwhelmingly in favour of a bill that would require a referendum to cede the Golan Heights to a foreign entity.

The Golan Heights, rising sharply to the north of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), straddle the border between Israel and Syria. From 1948 to 1967, the area was used by Syria as a strategically important military stronghold, for it commanded a great sweep of Israel, and indeed a series of random attacks were launched from the area over the years.

In June 1967, during the Six Day war, Israel captured the heights. Six years later, in a surprise attack during what became known as the Yom Kippur war, Syria overran the Golan before being repulsed by Israeli counterattacks. After the war, Syria signed a disengagement agreement that left the Golan in Israel's hands. On 14 December 1981, the Knesset voted to annex the Golan Heights.

Syria and Israel have talking to each, albeit in a somewhat roundabout fashion, for at least two years now. Through the good offices of Turkey, the Muslim state closest to Israel (though relations have become somewhat strained of late), so-called "proximity talks" have been on-going. One can only hope that these three-handed discussions are laying the ground for an eventual move to full face-to-face negotiations leading to peace between the two states, when once the moment seems auspicious to both sides.

The talks are covert. How easy or difficult the two parties have been, only the Turkish officials involved, acting as go-betweens, could say. However, the public postures of Israel and Syria towards each other seem to have been hardening recently, following the outbreak of a war of words.

It all seems to have started about ten days ago, when Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, said innocuously enough that it was essential to renew talks with Syria in order to avoid renewed conflict. Shortly afterwards, Syrian President Assad told Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Mouratinos, that Israel was leading the region towards war. That riposte was not sufficient for Syrian foreign minister Walid Mouallem, who then upped the rhetoric, telling reporters that should a new war break out, it would be a 'total' war and would reach Israeli cities. Such a comment was like a red rag to a bull, as far as Israel's right-wing foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was concerned. He then announced that should Syria launch war against Israel, the result would be the departure of the Assad regime from power.

It was at this point that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu stepped in, with a a message that reiterated Israel's readiness for negotiations and peace.

The Israeli-Syrian relationship would seem to be comparable to a tinderbox, primed and ready for the spark that will set it ablaze. The delicately-poised status quo rests at the moment on Syria's alignment with Iran and the extremist organisations of HIzbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Yet there are those within the Israeli defence establishment who believe that Damascus would be willing to decouple itself from this Iranian-led regional alliance in return for Israel conceding the Golan Heights.

Is that likely?

Wednesday's referendum bill does not mean that Israel would never hand back the Golan to Syria. What it does mean is that, if or when the time comes to do so, it would have to be, clearly and demonstrably to the whole of Israel, in exchange for a genuine peace.

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