As Negotiators Meet, Settlers On Golan Show Brave Face
KATZRIN, ISRAELI-OCCUPIED GOLAN HEIGHTS — AT the largest business on the Golan Heights, just outside this neatly planned settlement of red-roofed bungalows, guides can scarcely make themselves heard over the roar of excavators, concrete mixers, and jackhammers.
As part of a four-year, $4 million investment program, the Golan Heights Winery is doubling in size. Such an ambitious project might seem foolhardy as Syria and Israel resumed talks this week in Washington after a five-month hiatus, and Syria again pressed its demand for return of the Golan.
But the booming business ``can't wait for the political situation'' says manager Segev Yoravam, and the expansion ``sends the right message to the Israeli public, the government, and the Syrians: That we are here, and we intend to stay.''
At the same time, Mr. Yoravam would not be investing like this if he was not confident that should Israel withdraw from the Golan, the government would compensate the four kibbutzim and four cooperatives that jointly own the business.
For behind his brave face and bold plans, Yoravam - like the 13,000 other Israeli settlers who have moved to the Golan Heights since Israel captured the area from Syria in 1967 - is deeply uncertain about his future.
``We don't know what the final settlement will be,'' he says. ``There are many possibilities, and this process could go on for a long time.''
Although Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin continues to officially deny that his government will withdraw completely from the Golan Heights, there are increasing signs that he would indeed make such a concession if Syrian President Hafez al-Assad offered ``real peace,'' and if guarantees of Israel's security could be enforced.
Nor are the Golan settlers entirely reassured by the government's promise of a nationwide referendum before any significant territorial concession to Syria.
Even Yehuda Harel, a veteran settler who has long advocated such a referendum, acknowledges that ``the future is very hard to predict ... and I can't say it's 100 percent certain'' that Israelis would vote to keep the Golan Heights. ``That's why we are putting a lot of effort into fixing the majority support we have now,'' he adds.
That effort includes a campaign to be launched in April, to bring 1 million Israelis onto the heights ``to see the strategic points, and to convince the people of Israel that the Golan is important to them,'' in the words of Ramona Bar Lev, a settler activist.
Israelis generally have a soft spot for the Golan, and are sympathetic to the settlers there. The campaigners will be arguing not only that the Golan is essential to Israel's security, and its water supplies, but also that Mr. Assad will back down in the face of a determined Israeli refusal to budge.
``Ten years ago everyone said Syria would never talk directly to Israel or let Syrian Jews leave Damascus, and it has done both,'' points out Ms. Bar Lev's husband Shmuel, the mayor of Katzrin. ``Now they say Syria won't make peace without the Golan. But Syria can change.''
Only half of Bar Lev's fellow settlers share that view, however, according to a recent poll by Haifa University, and residents of the 32 settlements on the heights are badly split over how to face the future.
Hard-line religious settlers, for example, like their brethren in the West Bank, believe that they are living in the God-given Land of Israel, and say they won't move.
``Why should I give up my home?'' demands Haya Hadar, secretary of the religious moshav (cooperative) Alonei Habashan, close to the Syrian border. ``I don't think the benefits I get [from peace] are worth the price I have to pay.''
At the other end of the spectrum stands Albert Hecht, who came to the El Rom kibbutz from Scotland eight years ago. ``If withdrawal means my children don't have to fight another war, if it means other people's children don't have to fight another war, if it means peace for Israel, then my house and garden are nothing in comparison,'' he says.
In between are men like Mr. Harel, who says that if a referendum went against the settlers, he would leave the settlement he helped found 27 years ago grudgingly but peacefully. ``The people of Israel have the right to make a mistake,'' he says.
REGARDLESS of their political views, though, the Golan settlers are united by their day-to-day anxieties about their uncertain future. Whether Israel and Syria will reach an accord, whether an Israeli withdrawal would be partial or full, immediate or phased, military only or civilian too, whether Israeli settlers would be allowed to stay under Syrian sovereignty; ``you've got all these crazy scenarios,'' says Mr. Hecht, ``and you are always waiting for the day when someone says it's happening.''
``Sometimes I think I'll leave the country if I have to leave the Golan,'' says Bar Lev. ``And sometimes I think I'll become a Syrian. I really don't know what I will do.''
Underlying that sort of confusion is the sense among the Golan settlers that they are no longer on history's side, but are standing in its way. Once they were encouraged not only by their government, but by their fellow Israelis, to pioneer strategic settlements that nobody ever thought of giving up.
They were widely admired for their sense of adventure, and their readiness to put up with hardship, and their ambitions were national ambitions.
Now they might well be asked to come back.
If a peace treaty with Syria involving an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan is approved by the Israeli public, the settlers' desire to stay in their homes will run against the national grain. And for people accustomed to embodying the national grain, that will be doubly confusing.
``No one came here against the consensus,'' points out settler Yoel Givol. ``People here cannot live outside the consensus.''