Trade Golan for Peace

I am standing on a hill in Golan, looking east. My guide, Fawzi M., points through the terraced apple orchards to a village less than half a mile away.

"This is where we come on holidays, to shout news to our relatives there," he says. "It is always so emotional. We call this the Hill of Tears."

Between us and the village snake the barbed-wire fences of a military front-line. According to international law, this area, on both sides of the line, is all Syria's sovereign land. But the hill we're standing on is part of the 468-square-mile chunk of Golan that Israel has occupied since 1967, and the village we are looking at is under Syrian control.

In 1991, the two countries opened groundbreaking face-to-face talks on a final-status peace agreement, which later made considerable headway under Washington's sponsorship. But in 1996, Israel suspended its participation in the talks. Now, the two nations remain in a state of war.

Coming and shouting across this valley is the nearest Fawzi can come to talking to his brothers on the other side.

Fawzi is one of 16,000 Syrian nationals still living on their ancestral land in Golan. They live in five villages on the steep slopes of Jebel al-Shaikh (Mount Hermon), in north Golan.

On the broad Golan plateau to the south, there used to be an additional 130 Syrian villages and one town, Feeq. During the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Syria's military positions here collapsed within hours. Israeli troops surged into Golan, and Syrian soldiers fled in disarray. Startled and terrified, nearly all the civilian residents of the plateau also fled. The Israelis trucked and pushed the rest of them behind Syrian lines - and then mined the access routes and grazing areas to block their return.

Syrian specialists say 140,000 people fled in those days. Now, the population of the displaced plus their descendants has grown to half a million.

Since 1967, only the town of Quneitra has been returned to Syria. (Shortly before its handover, in 1974, Israeli army sappers dynamited all its remaining structures.) Inside the broad zone that has remained under Israeli occupation, all the Syrian villages except the five that are still inhabited were demolished long ago. Many of the fertile fields around them have meanwhile been de-mined and brought under cultivation again - by the 16,000 Israeli settlers who have moved to Golan since 1967.

Some of the settlers have been vocal opponents of any move to return Golan to Syria. But many other Golan settlers are more flexible.

One spokesman for the pro-peace settlers pointed out that in Israel's 1996 elections, Labor leader Shimon Peres won 50 percent of the Golan settlers' votes - even though he was clearly prepared to make a large or even total withdrawal from Golan in return for peace with Damascus.

Back in December 1981, the Israeli Knesset (parliament) voted to annex occupied Golan to Israel. The UN Security Council immediately, and with the full support of the United States, passed resolution 497, which declared Israel's move "null and void, and without international legal effect."

Today, Golan's Israeli settlers benefit from the "free" land grants, pork-barrel projects, and generous financial incentives with which successive Israeli governments have supported their implantation here.

Golan's native Syrians, meanwhile, live under a throttling set of regulations that curb their freedom of speech, association, travel, property rights, and their right to normal social and economic development. Nearly all of them are determined to hang onto their political identity as Syrian citizens and to the lands around their villages that have often been the target of Israeli expropriation efforts.

When Labor was still in power in Israel, the Israelis and Syrians came much closer than most people realize to concluding a workable peace agreement.

Syria has always said it is not interested in any deal that does not end up with Israel's total withdrawal from Golan.

In 1993, Israel's late Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin indicated to Syria that, in the context of a satisfactory peace agreement, he would be prepared to consider such a pullback.

For Rabin, as for most Israelis, no withdrawal from Golan was thinkable at all except in the context of very far-reaching security arrangements with Syria.

Between 1994 and 1996, under both Rabin and Shimon Peres, Israel came quite close to winning agreement from Syria on what those arrangements should be.

Experienced arms-controllers from the Pentagon who took part in those talks are convinced that those arrangements could have worked.

But in March 1996, Mr. Peres suspended the talks, promising that he would return after the Israeli election scheduled for that June. That never happened. He lost the election. Prime Minister Benajamin Netanyahu took over - and he has refused to resume the talks with Syria at the point where Peres suspended them.

American officials know that making peace on the Syrian front remains a vital part of any effort to bring military stability to the Middle East.

But since 1996, the Clinton administration has been silent about Israel's refusal to return to the peace table with Syria.

American companies and institutions do business with Israeli institutions in Golan as though the area were not still, by all internationally agreed definitions, occupied territory. The Golan's historic residents, both those who stayed and those who fled, await the restoration of their rights, including property rights illegally usurped.

Yes, there are important security considerations in Golan - for Israel, and for Syria. But if Yitzhak Rabin, whom no one ever judged "soft" on security issues, thought he could see a way for Israel to be secure while trading Golan for a strong peace with Syria, then the rest of us should also assume that this can be accomplished.

When will we start to see a renewal of active diplomacy on this issue from Washington?

* Helena Cobban is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

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