For Israelis, Golan is home, not a bargaining chip

The strategic plateau is a linchpin in recently renewed Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

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Key territory: The Golan Heights, captured by Israel from Syria in 1967, has become a popular vacation spot for Israelis.

In the world's eyes, this grassy, barren plateau is no different from the West Bank and Gaza Strip: territories occupied by Israel that should be relinquished in return for normal relations with Arab states. Captured from Syria in 1967, the Golan Heights is the linchpin for recently renewed Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

But to Israelis, the Golan is a peaceful part of their country, even a popular vacation spot. A movie at the "Golan Magic" tourist center in this Jewish settlement shows emerald grazing fields rather than the minefields left from war. The audience is sprayed with mist as a preview of waterfall hikes in the Golan's lush canyons.

"Even more than the West Bank, people have grown up thinking of the Golan as part of Israel," says Gershom Gorenberg, author of "The Accidental Empire," a book about the Jewish settler movement. "It's not dangerous to live there.... The whole set of images associated with the West Bank is not there."

Unlike the West Bank or Gaza Strip

Though the world considers the 32 Israeli communities in these highlands illegal settlements, the Golan occupies a different place in Israel's national psyche than the West Bank does. Israelis visit the Golan more than in the West Bank and even Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, which Israelis claim as their capital.

Now that the Golan is back on the bargaining table, Israeli residents there bristle at being compared with the hard-line religious-nationalist settlers of the West Bank and of the former Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip.

"We're not missionaries. This is not a cult," says tourist-center owner and Golan resident Haim Ohayon.

The settlers who moved to the Golan Heights came from secular kibbutzim farming collectives dominated by the dovish Labor Party. Unlike the religious settlers who view territories conquered in 1967 as an inalienable part of a biblical birthright, the farmers brought with them a greater willingness to compromise.

That's why few Israelis refer to them as mitnachlim, the often derogatory Hebrew term for the residents in the West Bask and Gaza.

Golan residents also differentiate themselves from Israeli settlers there because, unlike those territories, the Golan has few Arabs. Some 90,000 Syrians fled or were driven out when Israel took over the territory in 1967, according to Israeli historian Benny Morris.

"What's special about the Golan is that there are only Jewish communities,..." says Yoni Dolev, a St. Paul, Minnesota native who moved to the Golan 15 years ago. "I'm not a settler. The Golan Heights is a different story."

The Golan Heights' frontier between Israel and Syria has also been calmer than any other border zone since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. And despite the heavy presence of military vehicles on the roads, residents question why a treaty with Syria is necessary when the Golan is more tranquil and more secure than even Tel Aviv.

With a mostly quiescent Arab population of just 18,000 Druze villagers, there isn't any hint of the fear for personal safety that permeated the West Bank and Gaza after the start of the first Palestinian Intifada in 1987.

That allows Israelis to feel at home on day trips to ski slopes on the Hermon Mountain range here. They visit cherry orchards just a few hundred yards from the Syrian border fence and patronize the restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts in Druze villages.

The thin Syrian population also enabled Israel to pass legislation in 1981 that extended Israeli laws to the Golan in place of the military regime – a de facto annexation.

Reluctant to give it up

According to a recent public opinion poll sponsored by Israel's Channel 2 news program, about two-thirds of Israelis oppose giving the Golan Heights back to Syria.

In addition to seeing the Golan as their own, Israelis say they are skeptical that giving back the territory will prompt a full normalization of ties with Syria, Israel's stated goal.

Instead, they worry, it will leave northern Israel vulnerable to attack – especially with Hezbollah, the Shite militant group and Iranian ally, positioned just across the border in Lebanon.

Those concerns, along with disappointment from failed peace efforts of the 1990s and in recent years, and the rise of Islamic militancy, have soured many Golan residents on the idea of peace talks with Syria.

"I'm the first person that wants peace," says Ronen Gilboa, a resident of Kibbutz Ein Zivan, sitting in an outdoor cafe surrounded by orchards that attracted 5,000 tourists every weekend last summer. "But I don't believe it will happen in our generation."

To be sure, there are ample Israeli politicians, military experts, and analysts who have advocated talking with Syria, even though the United States, Israel's ally, refuses to engage its president Bashar Assad. A peace deal with Syria, the argument goes, would score a blow to the rising influence of Iran and its drive to become a regional superpower.

"Iran would be losing a big ally who it had firmly in its camp," says Meir Javedanfar, coauthor of "The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran." "Relations with Israel will start impacting Syrian calculation when it comes to cooperation with Iran. It will also put pressure on relations with Hezbollah."

Back at the visitors' center, Mr. Ohayon holds business meetings in a souvenir shop. Would he resist a treaty that requires settlers to leave the Golan Heights? No, Ohayon says, "We're not above the law."

Like other residents here, his dream is for Israel to cut a deal with Syria that would allow Israel to remain on the Golan Heights. (He suggests a 200-year lease.)

But he admits it's a less than realistic vision. "For peace with Syria, there needs to be a new world order," he says.

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