Assad needs 'dramatic gesture' to change public opinion on Golan

Sixty-five percent oppose a full withdrawal - but that could change, experts say, if the Syrian president takes a lesson from Anwar Sadat.

Assad 88 (photo credit: )
Assad 88
(photo credit: )
Israelis may dislike the idea of surrendering the Golan Heights to Syria - in a recent poll conducted by the Geo-Cartographic Institute, 65 percent opposed a full withdrawal - but that could change, experts say, if Bashar Assad takes a lesson from Anwar Sadat. Sadat's visit to Israel in 1977 was pivotal in making Israelis accept the decision, reached in subsequent peace negotiations, to cede the Sinai to Egypt. Before that, most Israelis opposed the idea. "The same pattern existed there as well - most people were against it and when they heard the complete proposition they changed their minds," said Yoram Peri, professor of communications at Tel Aviv University. "In the situation of Sadat, the change was very dramatic. Now, the Israelis are in terrible need of gestures. In the case with Syria, the fact that Syrians are always very cautious about gestures causes the Israelis to think that they are our worst enemies," he said. "It is clear that if the Syrians would use public gestures, we could see a dramatic change. But I don't think that we will because it is not their style," Peri added. Shlomo Brom, senior research associate at the Jaffee Center, also drew a parallel between the situation in Egypt in the late '70s and the current question of the Golan Heights. "All the public opinion polls for this period showed that the majority of Israelis were against withdrawing from the Sinai for a peace agreement with Egypt," Brom said, but "once the negotiations ended, public opinion changed overnight." There is little expectation in Israel, however, of a visit by the Syrian president any time soon. "Sadat came to Israel after the bridge was prepared. With Syria, I doubt the bridge will be prepared and then that Assad will visit the Knesset," said Yariv Ben-Eliezer from the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. In addition, Israelis view the Golan Heights as more essential to security than the Sinai. "The Golan Heights has many settlements, and security-wise most people assume we should maintain the Golan Heights," Ben-Eliezer said. Effectively, the Syrian and Israeli governments are less prepared for negotiations, Eliezer added. However, Brom said that the negotiation record between Syria and Israel is strong. "The disengagement agreement of 1974 has been kept by the Syrians perfectly, with no violations," Brom said. Still, Brom agreed that the Israeli government cannot expect a gesture from the Syrian government and must begin to rely on "serious evidence" rather than a gesture that is foreign to their nature. In the meantime, the experts agreed, the recent poll results are indicative of a public still unconvinced of the benefits of a deal that is still vague. "Whenever you ask a hypothetical question, you get very different answers than when the situation is more concrete," Peri said. "When you ask people if they want to give up the Golan Heights, of course people will say no. One should not take what the public opinion is without any idea of what the plan will be." Brom said he was "certain" that a change in public opinion was possible. "The attitude of the public opinion changes when they get something concrete that includes security or normalization that makes peace more substantial," he said. Therefore, it is difficult to predict the "dramatic changes" that occur between the beginning and the end of negotiations, Peri said. "The position today is not going to be the position tomorrow and the position tomorrow will not be the same as the position the day after tomorrow," he said. Still, other experts said they do not foresee a change in public opinion under any circumstances. More people are willing to make concessions regarding Jerusalem rather than the Golan Heights, said Ben-Eliezer. "The people of the West Bank are being portrayed as extremely religious, as extremist and not like us - like the majority of the Israeli-born," he said. "The people from the Golan Heights look more like us in what they represent. Therefore, it is easier for the Israeli people to associate with them." Effectively, Israelis feel too connected to the settlements in the Golan Heights to withdraw. Also, public opinion will be more difficult to sway due to a lack of trust in the government. "It's going to be very tough because there is a question mark on the integrity and the morality of the government," Ben-Eliezer said. "If Olmert gave the Golan back, I don't think the Labor Party would support him, nor would the extreme right. I don't think he has a chance."