Golan Settlers Fear Their Land May Lose Out to Holier Ground
KATZRIN, GOLAN HEIGHTS — FOR Meir Monitz, home is where the heart of the Middle East peace process is likely to focus. And that makes him distinctly nervous."It's very hard to talk about it because it's my home," says the deputy mayor of this largest of Israeli settlements in the Golan Heights. "Nobody likes for somebody else to negotiate for their home." But to negotiate for the return of the strategic plateau where four countries meet is exactly what Syria and the United States will expect from Israel at the planned October peace conference. Trading at least some of this and other land Israel occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War in exchange for peace with the Arabs is central to the American initiative. Even though Israel's ruling Likud party, led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, rejects the land-for-peace formula, the 11,000 Golan settlers are mostly long-time opposition Labor Party supporters, and they fear that the Likud may sacrifice the Golan in order to keep lands that are more religiously significant. On the face of it, all of Israel's 100,000 settlers seem secure with the land-loving Likud and parties of the extreme right holding the reigns of power. Indeed, Shamir's government has presided over an unprecedented wave of new building in the territories, and the disputed areas are increasingly becoming a low-cost housing alternative for new Soviet immigrants and young Israeli couples priced out of big city markets. The prime minister is fond of saying that "a big immigration needs a big Israel." But it's also no secret that the ties that bind this government and many Jews to the Biblical lands of Judea, Samaria (the West Bank), and to a lesser extent Gaza, simply don't extend to the strategic cliffs plucked from Syria in June 1967 and fought over as recently 1974. "Yes, the Golan Heights is a strategic security necessity," agrees one Likud Party source, who asked not to be identified. "But I wouldn't compare it with the sacredness of Judea and Samaria. It's really not part of Eretz Israel [the land of Israel]." He says it would be unthinkable for Likud to even discuss returning East Jerusalem, for example, also occupied in 1967, but adds: "You could talk about the Golan Heights." Bob Lang is a right-wing political activist and West Bank settler who is opposed to any territorial compromise. Yet he too senses the winds of change blowing across the Golan, which he says originate in Syria. "No one ever thought [Syrian President] Hafez al-Assad would come to the negotiating table," he says. "I do see a scenario that says we'll give Assad back the Golan Heights, and as far as the Palestinians [in the West Bank and Gaza] go, we'll give some kind of autonomy. I could see that happening." Golan was settled after 1967 by mostly secular cooperative farmers - the heart and soul of the Labor Party - who had been the targets of Syrian gunners perched in the adjacent mountains. It was part of Labor's "settlement-security" doctrine that also brought about extensive fortress-like development around Jerusalem and through the Jordan Valley, Israel's longest border. "I can't speak for the Likud, but when it comes to emotions, we are more attached to the Golan Heights than the Likud people, because the people living there are ours," says Labor parliamentarian Mordechai Gur, the Army chief of staff from 1974 to 1978. In contrast, more Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza support Likud or the religious and nationalistic parties to the right of Likud. They tend to be highly politicized and driven to reclaim Biblical Eretz Israel for the Jews. "Everyone today that moves into Judea, Samaria, and Gaza is a modern day Zionist. Everyone is making a political statement," asserts Mr. Lang. "You're not going to find more than 15 percent of the people here voting for Labor." The current Army chief of staff, Ehud Barak, has weighed in cautiously on the Golan issue. He told state-run Israeli Radio this week: "The Golan Heights is an essential element to Israel's security and its ability to defend itself. I don't think it is appropriate at this time to say anything more than this." Mr. Gur insists it would be a "military disaster" to give up the Golan, but adds territorial concession with security guarantees simply can't be ruled out. "I believe Syria won't speak about any peace without getting the Golan back," he says.