Analysis: How strategic is the Golan?

According to some experts Israel would be foolish to withdraw from the Golan and return it to Syria.

syrian troops 298.88 AP (photo credit: AP [file])
syrian troops 298.88 AP
(photo credit: AP [file])
The formula is clear and has been set by the past half dozen Israeli governments: The Golan Heights, probably alongside the Shaba Farms, in exchange for real and true peace with Syria. Israel put this formula to the test in US-brokered peace talks in Shepherdstown, Virginia in 2000, where prime minister Ehud Barak offered to withdraw to the Green Line in exchange for peace and full recognition. Syria rejected the offer. The value of the Golan Heights is recognized by the entire world. Most recently, its strategic importance was mentioned in the Iraq Study Group (ISG) report authored by former US secretary of state James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton. In the report, the ISG called on Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights and return the territory to Syria in exchange for comprehensive peace. The report does not however ignore Israeli security concerns and offers to deploy US forces to monitor the deal, something along the lines of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) stationed in the Sinai, to help make sure the desert remains a demilitarized zone as stipulated under the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. What is the strategic importance of the Golan Heights? According to some experts, Israel would be foolish and negligent to withdraw from the Golan and return it to Syria. These experts cite several key reasons why Israel should retain sovereignty over the area - chief among them the argument that the 1,158 square kilometers of the Golan serve as a buffer against a surprise Syrian attack. There is also the water issue. The Golan is the largest of Israel's three primary sources of fresh water, including the headwaters of the Jordan River and mountain streams that fill the Kinneret. Disruption of the water flow would be a strategic blow to the State of Israel. Defense officials from the Northern Command argued this week that while the Golan was no doubt a "strategic asset", technological advances - radar systems and listening devices - could be just as effective as the mountainous strip of land in preventing Syrian surprises. This argument has been made by Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who was once one of the leading proponents of a peace deal with Syria. But even for some of those who today call for peace talks with Syria, in an attempt to break President Bashar Assad's strategic alliance with Iran, the Golan Heights is a strategic asset that Israel should not be so quick to relinquish. "There is significance to having more territory since in the end that is how wars are decided - by occupying more land," said Boaz Ganor, director of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Inter-Disciplinary Institute in Herzliya, while dismissing Peres's claim that technology could replace the strategic value of the Golan itself. But Ganor was quick to add that in exchange for real peace, Israel should be prepared to give up the Golan, although only in a long-term process similar to the Hong Kong deal. Ganor said that Israel could sign a peace deal with Syria under which it would agree that the Golan belongs to Syria in exchange for recognition and real peace. The transfer of the territory, however, would come only after 10 or 20 years, during which time the peace would be tested and examined. If war should erupt, then the deal, Ganor claims, could be revoked. Peace with Syria does not, however, appear to be on the agenda of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government. There could be several reasons for this. Firstly, Olmert does not want to have a different policy vis-a-vis Syria than the US, which has boycotted the country due to its support of the insurgency against coalition forces in Iraq. The other possibility - and Olmert has hinted to this - is that he does not want to give up the Golan Heights and agrees with the school of thought which views the mountainous strip of land as a strategic asset necessary for state security. There is also another problem. Military Intelligence (MI) and the Mossad have been issuing conflicting, and at times even contradictory, assessments regarding the chances of peace with Syria. OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin has called on Olmert to engage in a dialogue with Syria. Meanwhile, in last week's cabinet meeting, head of MI's Research Department, Brig.-Gen. Yossi Baidatz, said that Syria was moving missiles to the border and preparing for war. This week, it was head of the Mossad Meir Dagan's turn to paint a pessimistic picture. In a meeting with the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, he said that Syria was more ready than ever before to attack Israel. Then there is Defense Minister Amir Peretz who uses almost every opportunity to voice support for peace talks with Syria, in direct defiance of Olmert's decision to turn down current offers and focus on the Palestinian issue. Before any real diplomatic progress can be made on the Syrian front, the defense establishment must decide on a single and unified assessment concerning the chances of peace. A second and no less important prerequisite would be for Peretz to align his own policies with those of the prime minister.