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.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue