By starting with a statement that Israel will pay the price for peace with Syria, as reported in Friday's Yedioth Ahronoht, the Israeli leadership is strongly hinting that it is willing to withdraw completely from the Golan Heights. The Israeli public deserves answers to several critical questions before these proposals to Syria go forward.
1. Everyone knows that the Syrian regime is completely isolated and facing an international tribunal that will investigate its role in the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria needs these negotiations to get out the predicament it faces--in other words. Israel has a great deal of leverage, and certainly does not have to agree to full withdrawal. Under such circumstances why should Israel signal that it is willing to consider a full withdrawal.
2. Moreover, in 1975, President Gerald Ford wrote to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that the US would "give great weight to Israel remaining on the Golan Heights." This US commitment was repeated by Secretary of State James Baker to Prime Minsiter Yitzhak Shamir in 1991, right before the Madrid Peace conference, and by Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, right before negotiations began over Hebron. And, even if Israel wishes to test Syrian intentions through negotiations, why start with a complete collapse of Israel's negotiating position. :
3. If the government seeks to come down from the Golan Heights, is it certain that it can achieve any of the "security arrangements" suggested in the past. Remember back in October 1973, Israel deployed 177 tanks against 1400 on the Syrian side. How does Israel plan to address these kind of asymmetries that still exist? Does the government believe that it can push most of Syria's armored formations behind Damascus, from their current deployment zone between Damascus and the Golan? If the Syrians are unwilling to agree to these arrangements then the Israeli government cannot provide the alternatives to the Golan Heights that were advanced by those who advocated withdrawal in the 1990's.
4. An alternative model for security without the Golan Heights requires a huge expenditure by the US for high technology weaponry for the IDF. Has anyone checked whether the US is prepared to significant increase aid to Israel when it has been cut over the last ten years? Will the US fund peace arrangements with the country that has been aiding al-Qaeda to support the insurgency in Iraq? Do we have assurances that before the start of negotiations, Syria will stop hosting terrorist groups killing Israelis and our American allies?
5. And what is the actual line of withdrawal? Syria claims the June 4, 1967 line which gives it the northeastern shore the Kinneret. In the 1950's, when the Syrian encroached on the Kinneret shoreline, they formally claimed its waters as well. During the Barak government, the Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara hinted at his willingness to compromise this point, only to be rebuked by Hafiz al-Assad. Has somebody done his homework this time and checked?
6. Most importantly, what is driving the government to do this? Is there a demographic problem on the Golan Heights? No.
In fact, the Golan has been in Israel's hands more years than it has been in Syria's hands. In the last ten years there has been a tendency to experiment with the security of Israel though all kinds of initiatives, without any serious staff work. The results have been disastrous. It is time to be serious and stop experimenting with Israel's future.
Dr Dore Gold heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs: www.jcpa.org.il