Until the Six-Day War in 1967, the Golan Heights were a strategic bastion for Syria. At their highest point, the Heights elevated Syrian artillery 3,000 feet above the Sea of Galilee, and for several years before 1967 the Syrians used their commanding position to shell towns and kibbutzim in the lowlands just across the border in Israel.
There was a United Nations buffer zone between Syria and Israel, but it was a joke. When Israel protested to the UN about Syrian shelling, the UN did nothing. That and other evidence of the impotence of the UN convinced Israel’s Arab neighbors that the Jewish State could be attacked with impunity.
And so it could, but only if the aggressors failed to reckon on the punitive power of the Israeli military.
Israel was vastly outnumbered and outgunned on all fronts, and yet managed to repel its enemies and occupy extensive portions of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, in just six days.
Once in possession of such an important strategic position, Israel was adamant that it would not give it up. The Israelis have occupied the Golan Heights for more than forty years to make sure that Syria can no longer threaten the heart of the Jewish State.
At various times since 1967, Israel has engaged in tentative discussions with Syria about the status of the Golan Heights. However, until recently there was never any serious indication that the Israelis might actually return the territory to Syria.
The situation has changed in the last few months. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a weak and vacillating leader, has given unmistakable signals that he is willing to exchange the Golan Heights for peace — or rather “peace”, that familiar and ongoing process in which Israel makes major strategic concessions in return for empty Arab promises and cosmetic gestures.
Considering the advances in military technology that have taken place during the past forty years, turning the Heights over to the enemy would seem the height of strategic folly. With Iranian and North Korean assistance, Syria would soon be in a position to threaten virtually the entirety of Israel. Included in the threat would be the frightening possibility of nuclear weapons — which Syria is known to covet — aimed from the mountaintops above Galilee towards the cities of Israel.
Obviously, the IDF could never allow things to go that far. One assumes, however, that Boy Assad — or whatever thug succeeds him — would be unable to resist making the attempt. Hence the return of the Golan Heights all but guarantees that there will be war.
So why would Mr. Olmert even consider it?
Israel Matzav has been considering the issue of the Golan Heights in a recent series of posts. On Thursday he examined the possible reasons why Prime Minister Olmert would do such a self-evidently foolish thing:
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…most Israelis see Olmert’s [problems with criminal investigations into his alleged corruption] as the driving force behind the negotiations on the Israeli side. Here are some reasons why most Israelis don’t believe there could be much else behind our government entering into these talks.
1. Leaving the Golan is immensely unpopular among the general public. While talking about leaving may keep Labor in the government — which is its main goal — actually doing a deal with the Syrians seems most unlikely. Overnight polls indicate that the vast majority of Israelis are unwilling to come down from the Golan, even if it would bring peace with Syria.
65 percent of Israelis are against a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, even if this would bring true peace with Syria, a poll published by the Geo-Cartographic Institute revealed Thursday.
64% of respondents were also against partial withdrawal from the Heights and a similar percentage said it was inappropriate that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was holding negotiations with Syria at a time when his political future was uncertain.
Geo-Cartographic Institute president, professor Avi Dgani, told Army Radio on Thursday that “the people are with the Golan and not with Olmert. A big part of the public is against withdrawing from even a part of the Golan Heights.” Dgani was paraphrasing a bumper sticker with the text “The people are with the Golan,” distributed during Israeli-Syrian talks in the 1990s…
2. The Israeli public has been conditioned to the Golan being part of Israel. Unlike much of Judea and Samaria, which is of little interest to those who are not on the right side of the political map, the Golan is part of Israel’s national consensus. It has a very different image than Judea and Samaria.
3. Topography. Anyone who hasn’t been to the Golan would find it hard to picture. The Golan sits on the eastern side of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and rises like a steep cliff all along it (go look at the picture from across the Sea of Galilee in the post I just linked). Roads seem to go straight up or straight down until you hit the plateau. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to feel how Syrian troops could have sat on those heights until 1967 and shot down at the Israeli fields below. The older generation still remembers that shooting. Many people in their 50’s and 60’s grew up sleeping in bunkers every night because of it. The vast majority of Israelis don’t trust the Syrians enough to concede the entire game before the negotiations even open, as the Syrians have always demanded. The topography continues to reinforce that lack of trust and the memories of the shooting.
4. Water. A year ago, I wrote a lengthy post about Israel’s coming water crisis. This came from YNet .
The Israeli public should be aware that today whoever controls the areas of Samaria, Judea (which overlie vital ground water supplies) and the Golan (which is a crucial part of the Sea of Galilee’s drainage basin,) also controls of the flow of water to the taps in the nation’s homes and industries.
In order to contend with Israel’s hydrological deficit, estimated at 300-500 million cubic meters per annum, the government has decided, a decade later than it should have, to embark on an ambitious desalination initiative. The objective of this enterprise is to free the country from the fickle whims of the weather in an arid area of the world located on the fringes of a desert, by the large scale artificial generation of water.
The first such plant, sited near Ashkelon, recently began operating, more than five years after the government approved its construction. The plant, which is the biggest and one of the most advanced facilities of its kind in the world, produces 100 million cubic meters annually — i.e. between one fifth and one third of the current hydrological deficit.
This means that even without yielding a single liter of water to any Arab entity, Israel still requires the construction of an additional three to five similar plants — the biggest in the world — to achieve “sustainable management” of the existing hydro-resources i.e. to prevent their over-exploitation and accelerated salting and pollution due to excess extraction.
If Syria had the Golan, it would be even worse.
See Carl’s post for more details.
Seen from this point of view, the Golan Heights negotiations are an elaborate kabuki dance, and are never intended to result in actual withdrawal. Mr. Olmert is dancing on a precipice, but he is evidently confident that he can avoid actually pitching headlong over the edge.
Dore Gold, in an article written for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, has another perspective on the issue. He goes into some detail on the history of the Golan Heights and the role it has played in the defense of Israel since June 1967.
His important point is this:
If Israel were to agree to the June 4, 1967, line, as Syria demands, it would be rewarding Syrian aggression. Moreover, it could compromise Israel’s control of its largest fresh water reservoir. Israel should not have to be arguing with the Syrians over the question of whether a future Israeli-Syrian boundary should correspond to the June 4, 1967, line or to the older international border, for neither of these lines is defensible.
It would be a cardinal error for Israel to put into jeopardy its own security by agreeing to come down from the Golan Heights. [emphasis added]
He goes on to say:
Just prior to the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Syria deployed 1,400 tanks in this area against a total Israeli force of 177 tanks (a force ratio of 8 to 1 in favor of Syria). In the early 1990s, it was estimated that Syria generally deployed a standing force of five to six divisions in this area against an Israeli force of one division.1
It is incorrectly assumed that with the proliferation of ballistic missiles, the initial terrain conditions of conventional warfare are less important. In fact, should Syria’s considerable rocket and missile forces be used to delay Israel’s reserve mobilization, then the importance of the Golan terrain will increase as Israel’s small standing army will have to fight for more extended periods of time without reserve reinforcement.
Mr. Gold points out the strategic differences between the Sinai and the Golan Heights. The Sinai analogy is inappropriate when applied to the very different situation on the Syrian border:
The fundamental security problems between Israel and Syria — the asymmetry of their standing conventional armies — has been a problem Israel once faced with Egypt. But when Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula, it compensated for its loss of control of the Sinai with “security arrangements” that fundamentally restricted Egyptian forces through demilitarized areas and limited forces zones that were a part of their Treaty of Peace.
But while these “security arrangements” were instituted in the area of Sinai, which is roughly 220 kilometers wide, the territory of the Golan Heights is largely only 25 kilometers wide and is just 12 kilometers wide at its narrowest point. In order to create sufficient security for Israel, it is necessary to institute force limitations on the Syrian Army beyond the Golan Heights, well into southern Syria.5 Given the proximity of Damascus to the Golan Heights, it is likely that Israel’s security needs for demilitarized zones will require Syria to pull back its armored forces behind its own capital.
This problem is exacerbated by Syria’s massive acquisition of ballistic missiles and rockets, especially after the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
There are further difficulties for Israel — the Syrian entanglement with Lebanon and Iran — in any potential deal with Syria. To expect the Assad regime to negotiate in good faith with the Israelis is the height of wishful thinking, given Syria’s track record of aggressive duplicity.
Mr. Gold’s conclusions:
Entering a negotiation when such broad differences of substance exist is highly problematic. Given the continuing strategic importance of the Golan Heights, it would be a cardinal error for Israel to put into jeopardy its own security by agreeing to come down from this dominant terrain. Finally, such an initiative could also jeopardize Israel’s ties with its most important ally, the United States.
All of this is absolutely true. And so we return to the central question: what is Ehud Olmert really doing?
Is he serious? If not, what does he intend to do if the United States holds his feet to the fire and attempts to make him cut a deal with Bashar al-Assad?
The Carter administration began a tradition among American presidents: before leaving office, they attempt to construct for themselves a “legacy” by brokering that most elusive of conditions, peace in the Middle East.
George W. Bush is no exception. Like his predecessor, he has instructed his Secretary of State to engineer a deal that will bring peace — or whatever passes for it in the region — between Israel and “Palestine”.
And, also like his predecessor, the intransigence of the Arabs requires twisting the screws on the Jews. Israel, after all, has proved almost infinitely flexible in the past — why not try one more time?
So the big question still remains: what will happen when the United States calls Mr. Olmert’s bluff and makes him an offer that he can’t refuse?
Will he come down from the Heights?