Israeli view of leaving the Golan

Israel-Syria talks last week set off a bitter debate amid strategic

Each of the specially built wind turbines, painted in barbershop stripes of red and white, twists on the hill behind wind-farm manager Yoav Tsur's office like a pinwheel in a child's hand.

The breezy climate on the Golan Heights, where cool air from the Mediterranean clashes with hot gusts from the Syrian desert, creates ideal conditions for harnessing the breeze. With its blades generating 5,000 kilowatts an hour, the wind farm earns $1 million a year from Israel's state-run electric company.

Yet Mr. Tsur is willing to give up the business he founded here for peace with Syria. "Giving back the Golan is not the main thing. The main thing is making peace with Syria and Lebanon, with all of our [Arab] neighbors," he says. "If there was any possibility of making peace ... and staying here in the Golan Heights, I would love to stay. But everyone knows that won't happen."

For now, Tsur and those sharing his views are like Don Quixote, tilting at the windmills of majority opinion. The most audible voices among the 17,000 Israeli settlers who live on the Golan Heights, which Syria lost to Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, say that Prime Minister Ehud Barak's talk of making sacrifices for peace is pure folly.

But residents like Tsur, who has lived here for more than 20 years, are becoming increasingly vocal - and less of a minority. About half of Israelis, according to two recent polls, say they would be willing to approve a withdrawal from most of the Golan Heights in return for peace and security guarantees from Syria.

In the May elections, voters here favored Mr. Barak over Benjamin Netanyahu, the hard-line incumbent. Only 14 percent voted for the Third Way, the one political party dedicated to saying "No" to any compromise on the Golan Heights.

Yet Barak's Labor coalition needs people like Tsur, an active party member, to go on the record as saying they know peace with Syria is the right thing to do. That's because any peace deal will be put to a referendum before Israel goes ahead with any kind of withdrawal.

What promises to be a difficult public struggle for Israelis in the coming months has already begun to take its toll on communities in the Golan, where a sense of uncertainty about the future has neighbors refusing to talk to neighbors. Stalwarts accuse peaceniks of trying to sell out for financial compensation, while compromisers accuse die-hards of trying to scuttle a historic opportunity for Israel.

Shunning the high costs of Israel's cities, Tsur arrived here with his wife in their early 20s, a time when peace seemed unfathomable. One dog, two decades, and three children later, Tsur concedes the idea of moving is painful.

"I love the Golan no less than all these people who are going to fight for their homes," he says, glancing out at the 98-foot turbines dotting a landscape that looks like a cross between the rocky crags of "Wuthering Heights" and the desert mountains of "Lawrence of Arabia."

"These machines, I built them with my own hands. It's not just a job. I have everything to lose here," he says. "But who am I to hold 6.5 million people back from getting peace with our neighbors?"

For Tsur, the thorn in the Golan's otherwise idyllic side is Lebanon, where Syria maintains de facto control. He sees no other way to end Israel's occupation of a strip of south Lebanon, where it has been fighting a war of attrition against the Iranian-backed Hizbullah, as long as Syria gives the Islamic militia free rein to keep fighting. Israelis already have lost too many men on land that isn't theirs, he says. His 19-year-old son is one of the soldiers risking their lives in Lebanon.

"We're paying a very high price with our young soldiers getting killed, and my house isn't worth it," says Tsur. That, at least, is what he tells his younger children. Last week, all Golan schoolchildren were bused to Jerusalem for a massive protest against Barak's renewal of negotiations with Syria. Tsur and some other parents complained about the school system interfering in politics, and kept his kids home.

"I'm trying to tell them it's not going to be the end of the world. People move," he says. "When a family loses a son in war, it's much worse than leaving a home. We have to put this in proportion."

Mention Tsur at the nearby settlement of Maale Gamla, however, and community leader Omri Ataria shudders. "The very name makes my skin crawl."

Mr. Ataria also has been here since his 20s. At the time, he was active in the youth movement run by the Labor party, which sent his group of comrades to live in the Golan, telling them they were pioneers doing their national duty.

"Don't tell me my mission is finished," says Ataria. "We spent our lives building this and paying taxes, and now it's done? We should fight it."

Ataria points to the sun sparkling over the Sea of Galilee below horse stables at Maale Gamla. Under a peace deal, he says, the Syrians would be sitting up here looking down at a vulnerable Israel.

"This is the most important part of the country for water, for security, and for Zionism. If we give it up, I may as well go to Boston."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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