Golan Heights 224.88.
(photo credit: Matanya Tausig)
"If and when we arrive at the possibility of signing a peace treaty between Syria and Israel which would require a significant withdrawal, the decision on this would be made in a national referendum."
So declared then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in an interview in August 1994, amid a flurry of reports that progress was being made in peace negotiations with Syria on an agreement that would involve a full Israeli pullback from the Golan Heights. Rabin reiterated this pledge several more times over the following year, right up until his death in November 1995.
No referendum was necessary, of course, because despite claims that a peace deal with Syria was near, the talks never came close to resolving the basic issue of where the final border would be drawn and what the "normalization of relations" with Syria Israel would receive in return would consist of.
The same held true during 1998's Wye Plantation talks conducted by the succeeding government of Shimon Peres. But that didn't assuage the opponents of any Golan withdrawal, who repeatedly cited Rabin's referendum pledge and sought to turn that promise into law.
They succeeded in January 1999, passing a law that required a national plebiscite before the Golan could be ceded. But that legislation needed an additional Basic Law to be passed on its procedures before taking effect.
On Monday, the Knesset again took up the issue by approving the first reading of a bill that would close this loophole and make such a referendum mandatory before the Golan could be ceded.
Its supporters, including some members of the Olmert government now conducting talks with Syria, claim this step sends a strong message to Damascus - and to the prime minister - that the Golan is not up for grabs.
Actually, though, it doesn't. What it does convey is something closer to the opposite: a basic insecurity about the future of Israeli sovereignty over this territory - though an insecurity that has a basis far more in theoretical concerns, than in any reality corresponding to the current state of Israeli-Syria relations.
Worries over the Golan, and attempts to assuage those fears by creating legal obstacles to its return, actually date back to long before Jerusalem began talking to Damascus about the territory's future.
It was the return of Sinai to Egypt as part of the Camp David Agreement that really first raised the possibility that a similar deal could be reached regarding the territory taken from Syria in the Six Day War. To dampen any thoughts of that prospect, the Begin government passed the "Golan Law" in 1981 that officially extended Israeli sovereign law to the area, though stopped short of formally annexing it.
Ironically, when Rabin first proposed a referendum on a Golan withdrawal, that pledge failed to mollify opponents of such a withdrawal, as some polls at the time showed a majority of Israelis would under certain circumstances support such a deal. Suggestions were then made that a Golan referendum should require more than just a simple majority, that the minimum for its approval be raised to 60 percent, leading to counter-charges that this was just a ploy to negate the votes of Israeli's Arab citizens.
Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu attempted to introduce a bill that would also require a Golan pullback to win the backing of 70 MKs, but the ploy failed when the legislation failed to pass a first reading.
This new bill has passed that initial hurdle, but that hardly means it is definitely headed into law. To start with, it's questionable whether the current talks with Syria, or even the government conducting them, will survive long enough for the bill to remain the kind of priority it now is. Even if it did, legal challenges could arise to a law that lays conditions for territorial withdrawal that didn't apply to either the Sinai or Gaza pullbacks (Ariel Sharon, of course, famously ignored the results of a Likud referendum on the latter).
Why do those who believe the Golan indispensable to this country, for security and other reasons, so feel the need to raise the bar on its possible return to Syria at a time when polls show a majority of the public agrees with them? Surely a fear that, unlike the territory conquered from the Jordanians in 1967, the basics of a peace deal with Damascus could in principle be resolved relatively quickly, and likewise the removal of the some 20,000 Israelis living there, a number far smaller and less ideologically committed than those in the West Bank.
It is thus this concern over the Golan's future - rather than confidence it will remain in Israeli hands - that is most clearly expressed by those pushing ahead with the referendum bill.
Those concerns, though, seem somewhat misplaced at this time. It is not the conditions placed on winning Israeli approval of a Golan deal that will ultimately decide its fate, but conditions within the nation that will inherit that territory. If Israelis truly believe that a genuine peace with the Syrians could be in the offing - one that would include allowing them to again step foot in their beloved Golan, even if it means passing a border to do so - than winning a referendum on the issue would likely prove no problem.
But a Golan returned to a Syrian regime headed by the likes of Bashar Assad, who serves as valuable partner of Iran, an invaluable supporter of Hizbullah and Hamas, and a brutal oppressor of his own people, would never pass muster with the Israeli people - whether or not it actually comes to a vote.
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