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(photo credit: AP)
After staying away over the summer, vacationers were back in force in the Golan Heights this week during the Succot holiday, hiking the trails, riding the rapids and quaffing fine vintages in the local wineries. Life is back to normal and the Golan is once again a playground, a local substitute for Tuscany and Provence that's full of Israelis desperately grasping at normalcy.
But just beneath the surface, the Golan is everything but normal. It's not just the barbed wire fences and the yellow signs warning of minefields, or even the rusting Yom Kippur tank-hulks and newer Merkava battle tanks lurking over the horizon. The recent spate of interviews and speeches by the president of the mysterious country just over the border has managed to cast an ever-so-light shadow on the festivities.
There is very little respect in any of the regional capitals, or anywhere else for that matter, for Syrian President Bashar Assad. His father might have been a cruel despot, but at least you knew where you stood with him. Assad Junior is forever changing his amateurish tune. One week he's a man of peace promoting stability in the region, the next he's threatening war with Israel and acting as the benefactor of Hizbullah. On the ground, the Syrian army is reinforcing its forces on the Golan, while constantly remaining in defensive positions.
During the war in Lebanon and its immediate aftermath, the IDF took these threats seriously and stepped up its own opposing forces accordingly. Slowly the forces were stepped down, but the military continues to cast a wary eye eastward. Assad's strategy, if he has one, is still murky, but the situation basically boils down to one unavoidable fact: Assad realizes what side his bread is buttered on - his only chance for international acceptance and foreign aid for Syria's tottering economy is getting into a serious peace process with Israel.
But the only way he can do that and save face is to receive a realistic assurance that at the end of that process, Syria will regain the Heights that it lost in 1967. If Egypt got back every last grain of Sinai sand, then Syria can't settle for anything less than arriving back on the eastern shore of the Kinneret. And by extension, neither will the rest of the Arab countries settle for less in return for total normalcy with the Zionist entity.
But while the majority of Israeli public opinion has gradually come to terms with some kind of land-for-peace formula, the Golan is a different matter.
Over the years, mainstream attitude toward the Golan became totally different from that of the other "occupied territories." There are a number of real and perceived reasons for this. While Gaza, Judea and Samaria embodied the riots of two intifadas, a month of frustrating reserve service each year for many men, difficult pictures every night on TV and bearded religious settlers, the Golan symbolized something else.
The Heights, which in 1981 were recognized by the Knesset as being an official part of the State, are the only ski resort you don't have to fly to, the advent of good local wine and a favorite vacation destination in faux Swiss chalets. Instead of hostile Palestinians, the only indigenous population is in the three Druse villages, great places to stop for humous or labane while the border has been quiet since 1973. Instead of messianic settlers, the Golan is filled with attractive, secular farmers.
The reality is quite different. Half the moshavim in the Golan are religious (while a majority of Israelis living in the West Bank are not national-religious), the Druse maintain their allegiance to Damascus religiously and despite being relatively low-key, the IDF presence on the Heights is massive.
But image is everything. West Bank settlers are called in the media and by most Israelis mitnahlim, a rather derogatory, marginalizing term, while the settlers of the Golan are much more positive mityashvim.
The closest Israel ever got to considering a hand over was during the premiership of Yitzhak Rabin in the early 1990s, though unbeknownst to most Israelis, Binyamin Netanyahu was a close second. At the time a slick media campaign entitled "The nation is with the Golan" mobilized huge public support, mainly by stressing the consensual and hedonistic aspects. The campaign, which was fronted by spokesmen unidentified with the right-wing, like war-hero Avigdor Kahalani and Labor stalwart and kibbutznik Yehuda Harel, succeeded where so many other settlement PR efforts failed. While many Israelis on a certain level had accepted a shrinking Israel in return for some kind of accord with the Arabs, they still couldn't imagine giving up the Golan.
And it's still unthinkable. It's not due to the strategic factors, like the Heights' importance for the defense of the northern approaches and its dominance of crucial water supplies - the West Bank's strategic value is if anything greater. Rather, it's because the Golan has become an inseparable part of our comfort zone.
For over two decades, the great majority of Israelis haven't ventured across the Green Line into Judea and Samaria save for military service, and biblical homelands such as Hebron and Nablus are regarded by most as alien territory. But on the Golan the water is sparkling, the Cabernet luscious and the climate pleasant. Even the most peace seeking Israelis are prone to the heretical thoughts that perhaps there are some things preferable to a peace treaty.