Syria: First Things First

What should Israel’s position be regarding the Golan Heights and the 20,000 Israelis living there, and what obligations, if any, does Israel have to her American ally on this matter?


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on January 2, 2007.)

Instead of trying to divine just what Bashar Assad’s real intentions are in offering to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel, and whether his present intentions will also be his future intentions, some thought should be given to the basic premises of Israel’s response to the latest Syrian overtures. What should Israel’s position be regarding the Golan Heights and the 20,000 Israelis living there, and what obligations, if any, does Israel have to her American ally on this matter?

Having been offered the Golan Heights during negotiations by three successive Israeli prime ministers, there is every reason to believe that Syria expects a similar offer to be made within the framework of any future negotiations. It is, therefore, essential that Israel either reaffirm that position or else make it clear that this position has changed in the intervening years. So what should Israel’s position be regarding the Golan Heights? Should it be considered an integral part of Israel, and therefore not a bargaining chip in negotiations with Syria, or is it to be ultimately restored to Syria and 20,000 Israelis removed from their homes, if other Israeli requirements for a peace agreement are met?

By what criterion should this issue be judged? That the Golan Heights was under Syrian sovereignty until 1967, or that it has been under Israeli control for almost forty years and 20,000 Israelis have been living there for many years? That security considerations require Israeli control of the heights overlooking northern Israel, or that a peace agreement with Syria will make such security considerations irrelevant? Or, more importantly, that aggression must not be rewarded?

Syria has attacked Israel three times – in 1948, in 1967 and in 1973. In the Six-Day War, it lost control of the Golan Heights and did not succeed in regaining control of that area during the Yom Kippur War. It is not the accepted practice in international relations for aggressors, who lose territory in a war they began, to be rewarded by a return of that territory once a peace agreement has been signed.

In other words, when attacking a neighbor, you have nothing to lose – whatever you lose in the fighting will be returned eventually. This is both immoral and nonsensical. Probably the only case in recorded history where this folly was practiced was the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979. Three times the attacker, and three times the loser, the Egyptians got back everything they lost down to the last square meter.

That’s done. But should this be the precedent that applies to all other aggressors in the Middle East or anywhere else, for that matter?

The United States, presently leading the world in a war against terrorism, has made it clear that it does not favor Israeli negotiations with Syria, a malevolent member of the axis of evil, at this time. Should Israel proudly assert its independence, place its interests ahead of those of the United States and disregard the opinion in Washington?

Those who advocate this manly stance seem to forget that Israel and the U.S. are allies in the war against terrorism, and that allies have obligations to each other. After all, what is the meaning of an alliance, if not respectful consideration for each other’s interests? Six years ago, Israel betrayed its allies in southern Lebanon, and deserted the South Lebanon Army. This will remain an everlasting blot on Israel’s moral record, and as should have been expected, it turned out to be harmful to Israel’s own interests.

To repeat this grievous mistake with our closest ally, the United States, a country that has repeatedly come to Israel’s assistance, would be unconscionable and not likely to be quickly forgotten.

So it is all well and good to announce that the removal of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad headquarters from Damascus and the cessation of assistance to Hezbollah would be an important indication of Syria’s true intentions, but first things first – Israel should make two basic things clear. We will respect the position of our allies in Washington, and we have no intention of rewarding Syrian aggression. And one other thing: Israel will not negotiate while a gun is being held to its head. The message from Damascus is you either negotiate or we go to war. This should not work on Israel.

When all this is well understood in Damascus, in time, the way may be opened for negotiations with Syria.

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