President Bush still seeks a comprehensive peace for the Middle East. That could require resolution of the Golan Heights, the disputed territory northeast of the Sea of Galilee. Israel controls it; Syria wants it.
Although Mr. Bush has not pressured Israel to give up the Golan Heights, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is leaning toward this concession on his own. It's a presumed variation of the "land for peace" formula. And it would be a monumental mistake. Any such retreat from the strategically vital Golan could imperil Israel and the United States.
Let's be clear about Syria's intentions. Syria shares with Iran a design to destroy Israel. Both countries have documented intentions toward Israel that meet all legal tests for genocide.
Both also support assorted terrorist groups, which hold that same goal. Syria maintains close ties to Hamas and to Hezbollah, which is an Iranian proxy. Further, Al Qaeda, which has close ties to Iran, could discover opportunity on the Golan if Israel abandons it.
Recent testimony by Central Intelligence Agency officials to Congress made the case that Syria, with apparent help from North Korea, had been preparing to join the nuclear club. On Sept. 6, 2007, Israel's correct grasp of anticipatory self-defense put an end to these activities.
If official "peace" talks were reopened, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would be risking nothing. But Israel's risks would be substantial. Israeli control of the Golan Heights is still needed for deterrence against a coordinated attack. Continued control is also critical to secure Israel's supply of drinking water.
Prime Minister Olmert is confident that giving up the Golan could be the best way to induce Syria to make peace with Israel. This means that he must also believe that Syria, as a diplomatic quid pro quo, would be willing to relinquish its ties to Iran and assorted Islamist terror groups. But these beliefs would be based upon a naive legalism. More plausibly, perhaps, Olmert's position is based on certain domestic political motives.
Olmert's incorrect reasoning lies ultimately in the critical limits of guarantees in our anarchic world. International law is not a suicide pact. Still lacking a central authority with real power to keep recalcitrant states in line, our world legal order permits each country an inherent right of self-defense.
The Israeli Defense Forces must maintain its surveillance on the Golan. Pre-1967 warning stations do not have a clear line of sight into Syrian territory. Israel cannot depend upon third parties for intelligence. Even plans for a demilitarized Golan would be inadequate, in part because the Syrians would never comply with any demilitarization agreement.
Syria has missiles that could place all of Israel within easy range of WMD warheads. Any Israeli abandonment of the Golan would enhance this enemy capability. Golan surrender would also enlarge the prospect of war on the Lebanese front, and the influence of terrorist factions still based in Damascus.
The Golan dominates the Jordan Valley as well as the Bashan Plateau. Here there are only two natural terrain bottlenecks. These choke points are presently defensible. With this plateau in Syrian hands, however, enemy tanks, backed up by missiles and aircraft, could penetrate other parts of Israel. This penetration capability would remain real even if the area were "demilitarized."
Damascus has no serious agenda for a Golan peace. President Assad does not speak of the international border, but only about the June 4, 1967, line.
This is because during the British Mandate, all of the Sea of Galilee was within the international border. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had once wrongly agreed with the contrived Syrian position, but, later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu corrected this error. Subsequently, the US officially recognized this correction. Today, Olmert should acknowledge that Rabin's earlier acceptance of the Syrian line is no longer valid.
Back in September, Israel was prudent enough to act upon anticipatory self-defense to prevent a nuclear Syria. It should not now undo this prudence by surrendering the Golan.
"Land for nothing" makes no sense. Israel has nothing to gain from it. Nor does the United States.
A comprehensive peace for the region is certainly a proper goal; nothing could please Israel more. But the path to such peace can never be based on one-sided territorial surrender.
In the particular matter of the Golan Heights, peace will have to be based upon an authentic Syrian willingness to coexist with a Jewish state. For peace, Syria must first value such coexistence more highly than it does its present ties to both Iran and terrorism.
• Louis René Beres, a professor of international law at Purdue University, lectures and publishes widely on Israeli security matters. Zalman Shoval twice served as Israel's ambassador to the United States and is president of the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce.