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.
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.