Peace between Israel and Syria?

They're returning Golden Delicious, not the Golan.

Along with settlements and the right of return, the status of the Golan has proved to be one of the most intractable and long-running points of dispute in the Arab-Israeli conflict, drawing the Oxford historian Avi Shlaim to claim that Israel's occupation of the region is ". . . one of the most successful of Zionist myths".

This week, a shipment of Golden Delicious and Star King apples crossed between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan. The transfer represents a rare exchange across an otherwise closely guarded border -- exceptions are occasionally made for Syrian brides. While the movement of apples is not a significant event in its own right, it has brought the status of the Golan back to the attention of the Israeli media.

One of the more interesting pieces to emerge was today's article from Gideon Levy. The editor of Haaretz argues:

Israel does not want peace with Syria. Let's take off all the masks we've been hiding behind and tell the truth for a change. Let's admit that there's no formula that suits us, except the ludicrous "peace for peace". Let's admit it to ourselves, at least, that we do not want to leave the Golan Heights, no matter what.

I visited al-Quneitra in September 2009. The desolate town, once a regional trading hub, is now largely rubble in the UN-occupied zone between the Golan and Syria. The pockmarked hospital, which the Israel Defence Forces previously used as a training facility, serves as a vantage point for surveying the surrounding region.

From the roof, you can see that the UN Disengagement Observer Force zone occupies the immediate foreground. But looking further afield, the lushness of the Golan becomes apparent -- it's green and extensively farmed. An about-turn, and all you see is the aridity and barrenness of the land left for Syria. Why Israel stopped where it did becomes immediately apparent.

As Levy asks his readers: ". . . you know how much we love the place, its mineral waters, its wines -- so who needs all the commotion of demonstrations and evacuating settlements, just for peace?"

 

Game of strategy

Why take Levy's word? How about a former Israeli defence minister?

Moshe Dayan said (while in office): "There was really no pressing reason to go to war with Syria . . . The kibbutz residents who pressed the government to take the Golan Heights did so less for security than for the farmland."

Israel does not want to lose the Golan. That no Israeli prime minister has committed to returning the Golan is indicative of Israel's stance. The region has fertile volcanic soils, and it is also a perfect spot for tourism.

Moreover, it is of real strategic significance -- the Golan is the only area of the Middle East that provides access to Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. It is ideally situated to become a regional centre for trade and infrastructure. It could also be used as a conduit for military exchanges between Iran and various Lebanese and Palestinian groups.

During my visit, Muhammad Ali, Syria's public relations director for the Golan, said to me: "Peace can only be achieved when what is rightfully yours is returned." This summarises Syria's position quite neatly -- Syrian policy towards Israel cannot be detached from return of the Golan.

Although the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Muallem, outlined a phased return in his interview with Gabrielle Rifkind in the Guardian on 26 February, it was apparent that the full return of the region remains a precondition to negotiations.

But until Israel displays real commitment, Syria's links to the Golan will only be through apples and brides.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder