In October 1962, Eli Cohen, one of Israel’s most famous spies, visited a Syrian military base on the Golan Heights.
A Mossad agent, Cohen was sent to Damascus as a Syrian businessman who had made a small fortune in Argentina, and had returned to his homeland to help it grow and prosper.
Designed by the Soviets, the massive three-floor concrete structure was one of the more impressive buildings in Syria when it was built on the outskirts of Quneitra in the 1950s.
There was a hospital in one wing as well as offices for the top Syrian military command. A winding staircase greeted visitors in the lobby.
Through his connections and money, Cohen made high-level connections within Syrian military circles, and during his visit to the base, he was briefed on the fortifications the Syrians had built ahead of a possible future war with Israel. He looked around and noticed that there were no trees within the base. “Plant eucalyptus trees,” Cohen told the Syrian officers. Due to their relatively large size and long branches, he said, eucalyptuses were ideal for providing shade.
The Syrians liked Cohen’s idea and adopted it for all of their bases on the Golan. They didn’t know though that Cohen wasn’t really interested in shade for Syrian soldiers.
When the Six Day War broke out in 1967, Israel knew exactly where Syrian military bases were located. All they had to do was look for the tall eucalyptus trees.
Today, the once-prominent military base stands in ruins between apple orchards that rest at the foot of Mount Bental on the northern Golan Heights. You can carefully climb to the roof and look out at the fighting in Syria to the east just over the border in nearby Quneitra.
At the entrance to the old Syrian base there is a small monument in memory of Eli Cohen – a large lock and keyhole – symbolizing the “keys” to the Golan Heights he provided Israel. It is covered in shade by a nearby eucalyptus.
The empty and dilapidated base is symbolic of the general state of the Golan. While its natural beauty including waterfalls, green pastures and an abundance of archeology is breathtaking, the infrastructure on the Golan seems at times to still be stuck in the 1960s.
Take as an example Kibbutz Merom Golan, which was established on July 14, 1967, just a month after the Six Day War ended during which Israel conquered the Golan from Syria, the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, and the West Bank and east Jerusalem from Jordan.
A few months later, Kfar Etzion, a pre-state kibbutz that was destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948 and liberated in 1967, was resettled. Today, over 1,000 Israelis live in Kfar Etzion. Around 600 live in Merom Golan.
I tell this story since a visit to the Golan leaves you with a feeling of a missed opportunity. Israel conquered the Golan 49 years ago, annexed it – something not done in the West Bank – 25 years ago, but it remains indecisive, unclear of what it really wants.
Why do I reach that conclusion? After nearly 50 years, there are approximately 400,000 Jews living in the West Bank. On the Golan, there are fewer than 20,000 Jews who live alongside some 22,000 Druse.
In the West Bank, roads are constantly being upgraded and expanded, industrial zones are being built, and the smallest restriction on housing construction makes front-page headlines.
On the Golan, on the other hand, industrial zones are fairly empty, highways remain the same narrow shoulder- less roads they have been since the 1960s, and homes, when they are even built, are of zero interest to the rest of the world.
The question is why: Why does Israel not invest more on the Golan? Why does the government not invest in roads, schools, industrial zones and incentives for businesses and families to move to what is often referred to as the Israeli version of Tuscany? Unlike the West Bank – which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu envisions being transferred to the Palestinians – there is no peace process to speak of with Syria, and no realistic expectation that sometime in the future Israel will withdraw from the Golan.
The Syrian civil war, in its sixth year, is unfortunately expected to last for years to come. With the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could test Netanyahu’s sincerity about making peace already today if he was only willing to come meet him in Jerusalem. There is no similar model for the Golan.
I asked Eli Malka, head of the Golan Regional Council, why he thought there was such a discrepancy between the government’s investment on the Golan in comparison to its investment in the West Bank.
Malka, who has served as head of the Golan Regional Council since 2001, didn’t completely agree with my comparison between the Golan and the West Bank. First, he said, the motivation for those Israelis who settled in the West Bank to those on the Golan was different. He is right. The original settlers of the West Bank came from a more religious background and founded settlements there with religious fervor and conviction. Merom Golan, the first kibbutz settled on the Golan, is completely secular.
In addition, Malka said, the Golan lost out 10 years of investments in the 1990s during the several rounds of peace talks that were held between Israel and Syria. While that might be true, peace talks have never stopped Israel from building and investing in the land it conquered in 1967.
Construction in West Bank settlements has almost always continued during the various rounds of peace talks Israeli governments held with the Palestinians.
On the other hand, Malka agreed that there was a complete imbalance between the government’s declared interest in the Golan and the blatant lack of funding. The government, he said, recently decided to shelve an earlier decision to allocate NIS 18 billion to upgrade the Galilee and the Golan. The money was supposed to have been used to upgrade infrastructure, to establish industrial zones and factories, and to incentivize small businesses and families to move up North.
“This government is making a strategic mistake,” Malka told me. “This will harm Zionism and prevent the amazing growth we can potentially achieve in the Galilee and the Golan.”
Malka didn’t spare Netanyahu of his criticism, even though he is aligned with the Likud Party. In April, he reminded me, Netanyahu brought the cabinet to the Golan for a special meeting – the first cabinet meeting held on the Golan in Israel’s history – during which the prime minister asked his ministers to come up with plans for the Golan in their respective ministries.
“The Golan Heights will forever remain in Israel’s hands,” Netanyahu said at that cabinet meeting. “Israel will never come down from the Golan Heights. We will continue to strengthen the residents, the communities, the industry and the agriculture however we can, including through the decisions that we will make at this meeting.”
What came of that meeting, I asked Malka.
“So far, nothing,” he said.
What we are seeing on the Golan seems to be another case of Israeli indecisiveness. Land that has been annexed by the country should not remain neglected under a cloud of uncertainty. More should be done to increase the Golan’s population by providing attractive job opportunities, a high-quality education system and infrastructure that meets the standards of the 21st century.
The ongoing war in Syria presents Israel with another opportunity. Since 1967, most of the Druse on the Golan have preferred not to become Israeli citizens, like the Arab residents of east Jerusalem, who have residency cards but not citizenship. Six years into the war though, these Druse understand, more than ever, that Israel will remain their home, and they are applying for citizenship in increasing numbers.
Investment in the Golan does not have to come at the expense of investment in other parts of the country, but even if it does, now is the time. The Syrian upheaval makes the possibility of an Israeli withdrawal impossible, but instead of using the opportunity to increase investment, the government seems to just be waiting.
Speaking of opportunities: On Thursday my children went back to school. It was a cause for celebration not just because the summer vacation that seemed to never end finally did, but because our third daughter, Rayli, entered first grade.
Rayli is named for my wife Chaya’s grandmother – Rachel Bina – who instead of going to school in her hometown in Poland, had to work at a local grocery store so her younger sister could go to school in her place.
Thankfully, in today’s Israel, almost all kids go to school where they encounter a diverse set of opportunities, whether they are descendants - like Rayli - of Jews who found refuge here after the establishment of the state in 1948, or Arab citizens who make up 20 percent of the country’s population.
It is time opportunities be expanded to all parts of this country and all of its people. It is time to make decisions.