by Jonathan Rosenblum
December 17, 1999
During this week’s Knesset debates, Prime Minister Barak repeatedly expressed his sympathy for the 18,000 Golan residents sure to be uprooted by any peace treaty with Syria. One need not doubt the Prime Minister’s sincerity to still harbor the suspicion that his empathy was carefully shaped by Carville-Shrum-Greenberg.
By emphasizing the tremendous sacrifice demanded of Golan settlers, the Prime Minister sought to frame the Golan issue as a choice between the suffering of a few thousand settlers and the peace and security of 6,000,000 Israelis. Put that way, there are few in the country, including those who have built their lives for three generations on the Golan, who would not opt for peace and security.
But that is not the issue, and it never was. The issue Israelis will have to decide is whether withdrawal from the Golan increases our security or whether it makes a future war more likely and places the outcome of any such war in greater doubt.
Most Israelis have long since given up rose-tinted dreams of a "new Middle East," bubbling over with brotherhood. There are few who still dream of bargain-hunting in the bazaars of Damascus (not that there is much to buy, from all reports), as an early generation once dreamed of sightseeing by the pyramids Nearly a decade of experience with Oslo has led to fantasies of a more prosaic sort – of high fences cutting us off from our Arab neighbors.
Yet for all that Oslo has proven to be something of a reality check, we continue to equate peace treaties with peace, and to measure progress towards peace in terms of the number of agreements signed.
We already have peace with Syria. Never have we been less threatened by attack from Syria than at present when its army is in complete disrepair, its economy a shambles, and Israeli artillery within easy striking range of Damascus. The best guarantor of that peace is Israel’s deterrent capacity and the lack of temptation to the Syrian’s to think that they might wage war successfully. Any weakening of Israel’s strategic position by descending from the Golan Heights only increases the temptation and the removal of Israeli forces on the outskirts of Damascus lessens our deterrent capacity.
The virtually unanimous conclusion of all military experts who have considered Israel’s security needs is that the Golan is an invaluable strategic asset in any future war with Syria. (One hopes that Israeli military planners are still taking into consideration the possibility of war.) That was the conclusion of a 1967 study by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and of 1974 study prepared by the U.S. Army War College.
A 1988 study of Israel’s defense needs by more than 100 retired U.S. generals and admirals concluded that Israel desperately needed the Golan. Modern weaponry far from lessening the importance of strategic depth has increased it. The speed and power of those weapons makes it all the more imperative to ensure adequate response time.
The authors of the 1988 study concluded, "Missiles, artillery and aircraft can cause devastation. They cannot occupy. Only infantry and armor can overrun a country – and those are vulnerable to natural boundaries." Without the Golan in 1973, the north would have been overrun by Syrian tanks.
Israel’s defense doctrine has always been predicated on a small standing army sufficient to hold a defense position until the reserves can be mobilized. A decrease in the time available for mobilization, resulting from giving away strategic natural barriers, will necessitate larger standing armies and greater expenditures on weaponry precisely when military spending is declining.
Compouding the folly of putting Syria back on the Heights is the strong suspicion that the "price" for Syrian beneficence in accepting the Golan will be a refurbished Syrian army, with a far greater capacity to take advantage of its improved strategic position. Contrary to popular wisdom, Lebanon, not the Golan, has always been the crown jewel of Syrian foreign policy. To the extent that a return of the Golan threatened the legitimacy of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon, in the eyes of the Arab world, Hafez Assad has shown no interest in receiving back the Golan, even on a silver platter.
Thus when the late Yitzchak Rabin declared that Assad would receive everything Sadat received – i.e., a return of all land captured in 1967 – Assad’s immediate response was to demand much more, and more than any Israeli government could agree to – demilitarization of the Galilee, sharing of the Kinneret’s water, Syrian-manned early warning stations on Israeli territory. And when Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres agreed to consider even those demands, Assad’s immediate response was to shower the North with 573 katyushas in early 1996.
If Assad has, in fact, changed his tune, the incentive must have been very great. MK Yuval Steinitz charges that the Americans have promised to completely revamp the Syrian army, as the price for Assad allowing President Clinton to exit in glory. Just as we did for Arafat in 1992, Israel stands poised to rescue Syria from its weakest position ever.
Against the evident security cost of retreat from the Golan must be placed the quality of security guarantees available to Israel. We don’t even have a negotiating partner likely to be around to see the process through. No insurance companies are issuing policies on Assad’s life, and the continued ability of his minority Alawite sect to hold power after his demise is greatly in doubt.
Once the Golan is returned, Israel has little leverage left to ensure the reciprocal undertakings of the Syrians. What are we going to do if Syria proves unwilling or unable to guarantee the security of northern Israel from missile attack? Does anyone dream we would launch a war to retake the Golan, at the cost of thousands of Israeli lives and the risk of igniting the entire Middle East?
Prior to 1967, Israel recognized that she could never fight a prolonged defensive war or endure prolonged mobilization. In that highly unstable situation, the only option available was Israeli preemptive strikes. We are returning to such a situation today, one which allows Arab leaders to continually test the limits, as Nasser did in 1967 when he closed the Straits of Tiran. Once the Golan is back in Syrian hands, her leaders will be similarly tempted to turn off the taps of desperately needed water from time to time or heat things up in Lebanon – always careful not to go too far.
Israel cannot afford to mistake a treaty labelled "peace" with peace itself so that we are left saying, as Neville Chamberlain once said of Hitler, "Everything would have been fine if only he hadn’t lied to me."
Related Topics: Israeli Society, Peace Process
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