The Golan Heights is undoubtedly one of the most important pieces of real estate in the Middle East. Israel has controlled the region since 1967, however that could change. Recently there has been talk among Israeli officials of giving the Golan Heights back to Syria. What could possibly motivate Israel to give up such an important strategic asset? Before we answer this question, let's take a moment to examine Israel's current predicament.
Syria and Israel have technically been at war for the last 60 years, and Syria has yet to officially recognize the Jewish state. Formal peace negotiations between the two nations fell apart in January of 2000. Today, for the first time in more than seven years, the two nations are talking (although not directly). The talks are being mediated by Turkey, so the two sides have yet to sit down and negotiate face-to-face. However the current dialogue is seen as an important first step in what will probably be a very long and difficult process. Perhaps the most controversial issue on the table is that of the Golan Heights.
Israel captured Golan Heights from Syria during the 1967 six-day war. Syria tried to recapture the land during the 1973 Middle East war, but was unsuccessful. Both nations signed an armistice in 1974 and an UN observation force was put into place along the ceasefire line. Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, but that action has not received international recognition.
The Golan Heights border Israel, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. The area carries significant political and strategic significance. It is a plateau that overlooks northern Israel and southern Syria. The heights give Israel an excellent vantage point for monitoring Syrian movements and the topography provides a natural buffer against any military action. The area is also a key source of water and other natural resources. Syria wants a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 border. This would give Damascus control of the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, which is Israel's main source of fresh water. Further complicating matters are the 30 or more Jewish settlements on the heights which would have to be dismantled if Israel agreed to give control of the region back to Syria.
Syria Joins Club Med
Much like Iran, Syria has become increasingly isolated from the international community. Iran is Syria's chief ally and both countries have been accused of sponsoring Islamic terrorism and supporting the insurgency in Iraq. Syria has also been alienated because of its role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
Syria is on the US State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism because Syria gives "substantial amounts of financial, training, weapons, explosives, political, diplomatic, and organizational aid" to terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Syria supports various radical Islamic and Palestinian organizations, many of which are headquartered in Damascus. From their headquarters in Syria these organizations are able to plan and coordinate terrorist attacks against Israel.
Last week, however, Syrian leader Bashar Assad made headlines when he attended the summit for the new Union of the Mediterranean in Paris. Syria's decision to join "Club Med" has been heralded by some as the beginning of the end of its political isolation. In fact, some Israeli officials sense an opportunity to bring Syria out from under Iran's influence.
What Israel Might Gain
Opinion polls indicate that about 70 percent of Israeli citizens oppose giving up the Golan Heights. Some Israeli officials, however, believe that if Israel could persuade Syria to change its policies it could be worth the sacrifice. Alon Liel, a former director general of Israel's foreign ministry, told the BBC that: "There is a major effort on behalf of Syria to break the isolation that the West has imposed upon them...if we bring Syria into the Egyptian-Jordanian family and maybe as a result of it Lebanon too, and maybe as a result of that establish a Palestinian state, this is much more important to the security of Israel than keeping [the Golan Heights]."
In the eyes of some, the Golan Heights is the massive carrot that Israel would need to finally bring an end to the decades long conflict. Politicians like Alon Liel argue that if Israel can strike a deal with Syria, then Lebanon and the Palestinian territories would follow suit. If successful, Israel could be at peace with its neighbors for the first time in its 60 year history.
Too Little, Too Late
The reality of the situation is unfortunately not that simple. Convincing Syria to agree to the terms upon which Israel would willingly give up the Golan Heights would require something of a miracle. The political survival of Syria's ruling regime is still very much dependent upon Iran. Likewise, Syria has shown no interest in even discussing its support of terrorist groups or of ending its interference in Lebanese politics.
It seems unlikely that this most recent effort for peace in the Middle East will succeed where so many others have failed before. President Bush is pushing for an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians by the end of the year, before he leaves office in January. However his efforts may be too little, too late. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is swimming in a sea of controversy and scandal. For months Olmert's opponents have being trying to force him from office and there is increasing speculation that he could resign before the year is out. Clearly, neither of these leaders has the power and influence necessary to pull off a last minute Hail Mary in the Middle East.
To learn more about this subject, click on the links below.
• The Struggle for Jerusalem - Koinonia House
• The Legacy: Israel In Prophecy - Six Studies on One CD-Rom!
• Sarkozy Helps to Bring Syria Out of Isolation - IHT
• Israeli Doubts Over Syria Peace - BBC
• Syria's Winding Road to Peace - Boston Globe Editorial