The Geopolitics of a Golan Heights Agreement

By Cohen, Saul B. | Focus, Summer 1992 | Go to article overview

The Geopolitics of a Golan Heights Agreement

Cohen, Saul B., Focus

The victory of the Labor Party in Israel's June 23, 1992 elections gave a new purpose and dynamic to the Middle East Peace talks. The former Israeli Likud government was clearly a reluctant party to the negotiations; its ideological adherence to West Bank annexation qualified its commitment to a meaningful autonomy agreement. No wonder, then, that the first five rounds of talks, beginning in Madrid in October 1991 and extending into the following spring, focused on matters of form, such as venue and representation, rather than substance.

Building on the promise of Labor's victory, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker's visit to the Middle East in July 1992 gave fresh impetus to the peace process. The meeting in Cairo between Israel's Prime Minister Rabin and Egypt's President Mubarek was further indication that the emphasis would be on substance not form, and the talks since then have attested to this.

The Rabin government has demonstrated by its very first actions, including a freeze on new housing in the West Bank, that it is committed to serious negotiations. While initially it stated that its highest priority is autonomy for the Palestinians, of the West Bank and Gaza, it has also moved quickly to seek an agreement with Syria.

Syrian's claims to the Golan Heights

As the only sovereign Arab power that still demands restitution of land lost to Israel in the 1967war, Syria has made clear its unwillingness to defer its claims to the Golan Heights. Although Damascus now represents no substantial military threat to Israel, its control of Lebanon and its ability to unleash radical and fundamentalist Palestinian forces opposed to a negotiated settlement of the conflict gives it a measure of veto power over the peace talks. The Israelis recognize that Syria can be a spoiler in undermining an Arafat-sanctioned West Bank autonomy agreement between the Palestinian Arab/Jordanian delegation and Israel. Thus, the Rabin government has spoken with clarity about its willingness to restore at least part of the Golan to Syria as part of a formal peace agreement. Also, Prime Minister Rabin has entrusted the leadership of the Israeli delegation in the talks with Syria to one of Israel's leading Syrian affairs scholars, Professor Itamar Rabinovich, a proponent of the search for compromise. His appointment reflects the serious intent of the Rabin government to come to terms with Syria.

Is the Golan amenable to negotiations? The Syrians insist that they will not agree to peace and recognition of Israel until their land is fully restored and Palestinian Arab territorial needs are met. Hard-line Israelis insist that they cannot come down from the Heights because the Golan is so strategically valuable to the defense of Israel's Upper Galilee and the securing of Israel's Jordan and Sea of Galilee water resources. They argue that the present hill-water divide boundary in the east has defensive value which must be preserved. A reading of these two positions might conclude that there is little possibility for agreement because what is involved is a zero-sum game.

Others, on the other hand, including Prime Minister Rabin and some of the Golan settlers themselves, believe that there is some room for compromise. In addition to proposing that Israel keep all or part of the Heights under a long-term lease, some Israelis have suggested that the Golan could be returned if Syria were to agree to its demilitarization, and the peace agreement would be guaranteed by positioning a substantial United Nations peace-keeping force on the Heights.

Possibilities for compromise

These are unrealistic scenarios. The Sinai model of American-manned early warning stations could be an alternative to U.N. forces. At present, Syria is unlikely to compromise its sovereignty over any territory that it might win back by allowing Israeli settlements to remain there, or by abrogating its right to a military presence. …

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