My Word: A question in time

My Word A question in t

There is nothing new under the sun; the world is just getting hotter. Israel is again going through what is almost a ritual raising of the so-called Golan Heights Law. Last week, for at least the third time I remember reporting on it, the Knesset discussed the Golan Heights and Jerusalem referendum bill, which stipulates that any withdrawal from an area under Israeli sovereignty must be approved by a majority of the Israeli public. This time the MKs overwhelmingly voted in favor of continuing work on the legislation. It has been around, in one form or another, since 1974 when prime minister Golda Meir reportedly promised National Religious Party MKs she would "go to the people" before carrying out an agreement with the Syrians or other Arabs to withdraw from the territories gained in 1967. Yitzhak Rabin in 1993 also pledged to hold a referendum on the Golan Heights. In theory, referenda allow people to temporarily and democratically take back power from those they elected. This is not to be taken lightly. But once you start the plebiscite process who knows where it will end? Look at Switzerland, where referenda are so common they are almost a national sport: Just imagine what would happen were Israel to suggest a public vote on whether or not to allow its Muslim citizens to build minarets on their mosques. We would be condemned in the UN before you could say "Golan Heights." However, the fact that previous peace agreements were not brought for a referendum does not mean it is not legitimate now, when talk of resuming negotiations with Syria has sprung up in the wake of the failure of the Palestinian track. The signing of peace treaties is, for Israel, a life-or-death issue. And when the potential partner is Syria's Bashar Assad - not known for either his love of Israel or his belief in democracy - the potential hazards are huge. This is about the precedent of ending sovereignty over land formally annexed to Israel in 1981, ceding militarily strategic ground, uprooting scores of Jewish communities, putting the main faucet of the country's water sources in Syrian hands and encouraging the Palestinians to demand an even higher price in future negotiations. All of this, the cynics will note, without being able to calm our nerves by sipping excellent kosher wines from the Golan vineyards. AT THE moment, Israel seems unable to decide which country - Turkey, France or long-shot Egypt - should be the mediator in negotiations with Damascus, while the Syrian president is incapable of talking face-to-face with an Israeli leader. And no one can agree on exactly at what point in the previous negotiating process talks should be resumed. Admittedly, it will be easier for Assad than any Israeli leader to dictate a peace agreement to his people. He's good at dictating. Most Israelis understand that there will be no peace agreement with Syria without giving up the Golan; the only question - and this is the one that would be the basis of a plebiscite on the subject - is whether what Israel gets in return is worth the risks of trusting Assad's promises. It could be argued that peace talks with Damascus would help strengthen the alliance with the US so essential for Israel as Iran continues to nuclearize. But since the international community has failed to seriously tackle Teheran, pledging the Golan in the faint hope of stronger ties seems more suicidal than healthy. A referendum law might help the country prevent risks being taken that it cannot live with. It could even become a negotiating tool in itself, with the prime minister claiming he needs greater concessions in order to get public approval. It would also be a means of avoiding a repeat of the passage of the Oslo agreement "by a Mitsubishi," as it is referred to - the one-vote margin achieved by promising MK Alex Goldfarb a deputy minister's post and car. Critical agreements should be backed by a decent majority. Strangely, attention has always focused on the North, with the Golan Heights being cited again and again as worthy - or not - of the public having a say. The trauma of the Gaza withdrawal is perhaps the one thing that significantly changed since the law last rose and fell in Knesset in 2000. Also, the specter of violent resistance is now more real than ever. The strength of democracies is that they allow citizens freedom to express strong opinions. Unfortunately, a growing part of the Israeli public fears that neither their voices nor their votes are being heard or counted as government policy changes even faster than the governments themselves. Who, for example, would have imagined Rabin standing in the Knesset plenum and describing Golan Heights residents as "propellers"? That Binyamin Netanyahu would oversee the Hebron withdrawal? Or that Ariel Sharon would take every last Jew out of Gaza? Now, under Bibi II, it should be no surprise that the Golan Heights talks have again received elevated status or that construction in places that hardly realized they are "settlements" has been frozen. As for former and wannabe prime minister Ehud Barak, the Labor leader seems to be barely able to decide where he stands even for the Knesset vote, voting in favor of the latest referendum bill while explaining that he actually opposes it. ASSUMING THE bill continues its passage through the Knesset, it is a moot question what will happen first: that Syria will show some sign of wanting peace rather than just control over the Golan Heights, or all the necessary mechanisms for a public referendum will be put in place in time for a vote. We'd probably end up with national elections just trying to come up with an acceptable phrasing of the question to be asked. Golan Heights leaders are now likely to start - or more accurately restart - a public relations campaign. Such is the reality of the New World Order where the gimmicks and slogans set the tone. On the positive side, who wouldn't prefer a war of bumper stickers than violent clashes? How about "The Golan Heights above all" vs "It comes down to peace"? I predict a return of those "Ha'am im hagolan" (The people are with the Golan) stickers that were so prevalent in the late 1990s, when the referendum issue made yet another of its frequent appearances in the Knesset. Those who live on the Golan have always been perceived as "residents" rather than "settlers," ordinary folk who like to live in the closest thing Israel has to Tuscany. This might be, in part, because the residents of the Golan include a largely secular public while the more ideologically motivated, and religious, chose to settle Judea and Samaria. Gamla lacks the cachet of Masada or the religious pull of Judea, but the mountaintop city was founded by Hasmonean ruler Alexander Jannaeus in the first century BCE and Josephus Flavius fortified it during the Jewish Revolt against Rome. The area has clearly witnessed many terrible battles over the millennia. A resumption of negotiations on the Syrian track leading to a real and lasting peace would be welcome. But right now, standing on the Golan Heights and looking down, it seems a dangerously long way to fall.