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For Israelis, Golan is home, not a bargaining chip

The strategic plateau is a linchpin in recently renewed Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

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With a mostly quiescent Arab population of just 18,000 Druze villagers, there isn't any hint of the fear for personal safety that permeated the West Bank and Gaza after the start of the first Palestinian Intifada in 1987.

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That allows Israelis to feel at home on day trips to ski slopes on the Hermon Mountain range here. They visit cherry orchards just a few hundred yards from the Syrian border fence and patronize the restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts in Druze villages.

The thin Syrian population also enabled Israel to pass legislation in 1981 that extended Israeli laws to the Golan in place of the military regime – a de facto annexation.

Reluctant to give it up

According to a recent public opinion poll sponsored by Israel's Channel 2 news program, about two-thirds of Israelis oppose giving the Golan Heights back to Syria.

In addition to seeing the Golan as their own, Israelis say they are skeptical that giving back the territory will prompt a full normalization of ties with Syria, Israel's stated goal.

Instead, they worry, it will leave northern Israel vulnerable to attack – especially with Hezbollah, the Shite militant group and Iranian ally, positioned just across the border in Lebanon.

Those concerns, along with disappointment from failed peace efforts of the 1990s and in recent years, and the rise of Islamic militancy, have soured many Golan residents on the idea of peace talks with Syria.

"I'm the first person that wants peace," says Ronen Gilboa, a resident of Kibbutz Ein Zivan, sitting in an outdoor cafe surrounded by orchards that attracted 5,000 tourists every weekend last summer. "But I don't believe it will happen in our generation."

To be sure, there are ample Israeli politicians, military experts, and analysts who have advocated talking with Syria, even though the United States, Israel's ally, refuses to engage its president Bashar Assad. A peace deal with Syria, the argument goes, would score a blow to the rising influence of Iran and its drive to become a regional superpower.

"Iran would be losing a big ally who it had firmly in its camp," says Meir Javedanfar, coauthor of "The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran." "Relations with Israel will start impacting Syrian calculation when it comes to cooperation with Iran. It will also put pressure on relations with Hezbollah."

Back at the visitors' center, Mr. Ohayon holds business meetings in a souvenir shop. Would he resist a treaty that requires settlers to leave the Golan Heights? No, Ohayon says, "We're not above the law."

Like other residents here, his dream is for Israel to cut a deal with Syria that would allow Israel to remain on the Golan Heights. (He suggests a 200-year lease.)

But he admits it's a less than realistic vision. "For peace with Syria, there needs to be a new world order," he says.