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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As the strangers approach the bed, I wonder if this could be a moment of great gentleness

I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do.

It’s 1.13am on an autumn morning some time towards the end of the 20th century and I’m awake in a vast hotel bed in a small town in the east of England. The mysterious east, with its horizons that seem to stretch further than they should be allowed to stretch by law. I can’t sleep. My asthma is bad and I’m wheezing. The clock I bought for £3 many years earlier ticks my life away with its long, slow music. The street light outside makes the room glow and shimmer.

I can hear footsteps coming down the corridor – some returning drunks, I guess, wrecked on the reef of a night on the town. I gaze at the ceiling, waiting for the footsteps to pass.

They don’t pass. They stop outside my door. I can hear whispering and suppressed laughter. My clock ticks. I hear a key card being presented, then withdrawn. The door opens slowly, creaking like a door on a Radio 4 play might. The whispering susurrates like leaves on a tree.

It’s an odd intrusion, this, as though somebody is clambering into your shirt, taking their time. A hotel room is your space, your personal kingdom. I’ve thrown my socks on the floor and my toothbrush is almost bald in the bathroom even though there’s a new one in my bag because I thought I would be alone in my intimacy.

Two figures enter. A man and a woman make their way towards the bed. In the half-dark, I can recognise the man as the one who checked me in earlier. He says, “It’s all right, there’s nobody in here,” and the woman laughs like he has just told her a joke.

This is a moment. I feel like I’m in a film. It’s not like being burgled because this isn’t my house and I’m sure they don’t mean me any harm. In fact, they mean each other the opposite.

Surely they can hear my clock dripping seconds? Surely they can hear me wheezing?

They approach, closer and closer, towards the bed. The room isn’t huge but it seems to be taking them ages to cross it. I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do. I should speak. I should say with authority, “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” But I don’t.

I could just lie here, as still as a book, and let them get in. It could be a moment of great gentleness, a moment between strangers. I would be like a chubby, wheezing Yorkshire pillow between them. I could be a metaphor for something timeless and unspoken.

They get closer. The woman reaches her hand across the bed and she touches the man’s hand in a gesture of tenderness so fragile that it almost makes me sob.

I sit up and shout, “Bugger off!” and they turn and run, almost knocking my clock from the bedside table. The door crashes shut shakily and the room seems to reverberate.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge