AFTER years as the stepchild of Arab-Israeli diplomacy, the Golan Heights today is on top of the negotiating agenda. But as US Secretary of State James Baker struggles to coax Syria and Israel to the bargaining table, he must contend with Israel's ongoing program of settlement in the disputed region. Until 1977, the Golan Heights, together with East Jerusalem, was a primary focus of settlement efforts by the ruling Labor coalition and its affiliated kibbutz settlement organizations.
The first Israeli settlement in occupied territory - Merom Golan - was established in the Golan Heights on July 15, 1967, little more than one month after the end of the June 1967 war. It was the first of four settlements established before 1968, all of which were sponsored by the then ruling Labor Party coalition.
Like the Jordan Valley, the Golan had been depopulated by the 1967 war. Only four Druze villages with 10,000 inhabitants in the region's northeast corner remained from a prewar population of 100,000.
Israelis across the political spectrum acknowledged the Golan's geostrategic value. It provided strategic depth for Israel's interior as well as securing a direct route to Damascus, barely 50 miles distant over open terrain.
In the Golan, as elsewhere, military security according to Israel's model required civilian Jewish settlement. A November 1967 proposal called for the creation of 20 agricultural villages in the northern and southern sectors of the Golan with a population of 7,000 by 1982. A more grandiose plan, published in 1969, projected a Jewish population of 45,000 to 50,000 within 10 years.
By 1969, 11 outposts, all cooperative settlements associated with factions in the ruling Labor coalition, had been established with a population of 300.
Within the ranks of Israel's political establishment, doubts about the wisdom of ``creating facts'' in the Golan were overcome by the desire not to be left out of the postwar pioneering era. In the early 1970s, the left-wing Mapam Party voted to join the settlement drive in the Golan Heights.
``The vast majority of the party members,'' noted the party's daily, Al Hamishmar, ``are not prepared to relinquish their part in settling the Golan.'' Syria's attack in October 1973 forced the immediate and total evacuation of all Golan settlements, whose populations had increased to almost 2,000. Despite this experience, settlements continued to be seen as central elements of Israeli security on the Golan. Even as the war raged, the Golan's politically well-connected settlement movement won a gover nment commitment to double the plateau's settler population within a year, establish an urban center, colonize the central Golan region, and construct a regional defense system based upon civilian settlements.
On his first visit as prime minister to the Golan Heights in 1974, Yitzhak Rabin proclaimed, ``Israeli governments have not established permanent settlements in the Golan Heights in order to evacuate them or to let them exist in a non-Jewish state. If anyone has any doubts about that he should stop worrying.''
When Labor was ousted in 1977, it bequeathed to the Likud a settlement system in the Golan second only to that in annexed East Jerusalem. By 1979 the momentum established by Labor had produced 28 settlements with a population of 4,300.
The Likud's government's ``Fundamental Guidelines'' of 1977 promised that ``Israel will not descend from the Golan Heights, nor will it remove any [Jewish] settlement established there. It is the government that will decide on the appropriate timing for the imposition of Israeli law, jurisdiction, and administration on the Golan Heights.''
Nevertheless, Israel's agreement to return the Sinai to Egypt raised concerns among Golan settlers that a rapprochement with Syria along similar lines would be next. Like Sinai, the Golan held no compelling religious or national-historical attraction. And like the Sinai settlements, those in the Golan were largely the creation of the opposition Labor movement. In contrast, the Likud's efforts to build a constituency rooted in the land focused on the West Bank.
Ariel Sharon, then Minister of Agriculture, addressed settler fears. ``We will never leave the Golan for any price,'' he told Golan settlers in April 1979, ``not even for peace with Syria.''
The Knesset's formal annexation of the Golan Heights in December 1981, presaged in the 1977 guidelines, was another signpost in the Likud's rhetorical support for permanent Israeli rule in the Golan.
Settlement languished under its stewardship, however. Today, the Heights' Israeli population has increased to 10,000, compared to 200,000 in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In the last 12 years, only two new settlements have been built.
``Israeli settlement on the Golan isn't such a brilliant success story,'' wrote Labor Party activist Susan Hattis Rolef in the Jerusalem Post recently. ``After 24 years of Israeli settlement, the permanent population on the Heights is just over 10,000. ... Economically speaking, all the Jewish settlements on the Golan are in trouble and few can survive without massive financial assistance.''
The latest US diplomacy has raised the profile of Israel's settlement activities, causing Israelis across the political landscape to reaffirm their fealty to the region's annexation and to publicize accelerated settlement plans.
``The Golan Heights is not a subject for territorial negotiations,'' declared Prime Minister Shamir March 18. ``Resolution 242 has nothing to do with the Golan.''
Former prime minister and defense minister Yitzhak Rabin concurred, noting that Israel ``must not come down from the Golan Heights, even for peace.''
``To those who are worrying,'' added Minister of Housing Ariel Sharon at a March 18 meeting of the important Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, ``we are not only talking but are taking practical steps.''
``We are now in the process of building 1,200 housing units in the Golan Heights,'' noted Sharon the next day, ``and I hope next year we will build some 1,200 more. All this is to increase the [Jewish] population in the Golan from 11,000 today to 20,000.''
At the town of Katzrin, construction of 1,000 additional units will ``begin immediately,'' reported the daily Ha'aretz on March 4. In the last year, about 140 Soviet immigrant families have moved to Katzrin, whose current population is 3,500.
At the religious settlement of Hispin, 180 units, schools, and a gymnasium are under construction; 150 are begin built at Bnei Yehuda; and a gymnasium and school are going up at Merom Golan.
The settlement ``facts'' Israel is creating in the Golan Heights are expressions of a broad national consensus opposing the region's return to Syria.
In Damascus, the regime of Hafez al-Assad will accept no less from Israel than the deal made by Egypt in Sinai - that is, complete Syrian sovereignty.
The current round of US-led diplomacy, by ignoring these long-held and mutually exclusive positions, will not produce the conditions for fruitful negotiations.
Without a return of the Golan there will be no chance for lasting peace. And if there is no peace, Israelis and Syrians alike agree, there will be war.