About this time last year, the Israeli media was buzzing with gloomy predictions of an impending war with Syria. Come summer, they said, the northern front would be ablaze. That, of course, didn’t come to pass.
Nowadays, the buzz is all about the awful possibility that Israel will give up the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria. And like last year’s media circus, sensationalism is rampant, with attention paid to substance only when it’s convenient.
Israeli journalists continue to accuse the Olmert government of having lost the 2006 war in Lebanon and weakened Israel’s deterrence, disregarding the fact that since the war ended, Israel has enjoyed the longest period of quiet on its northern front in more than 40 years. Now, they tell us, the government is playing with Israel’s future; Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s real objective in talking to Syria is to divert attention away from the corruption investigation he’s facing.
Whether the threat of war last year or the threat of peace now, much of the buzz can be traced to Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his henchmen.
Despite having been voted out of office and subjected to several police investigations, Netanyahu seems to be convinced that he, and only he, is qualified to lead the country. Being who he is — the kind of man whose slippery grasp on the truth allows him to reminiscence, with no basis in fact, about Rehavam “Gandhi” Ze’evi serving in his Cabinet before being assassinated — he will seemingly stop at nothing to get his way.
Netanyahu has already accused the prime minister of every crime under the sun, and demanded Olmert’s resignation before a single charge was filed or the police had completed a preliminary investigation. In his quest for power, he appears to stop for nothing — even if, as may well happen, another chance of making peace with Syria will be lost in the process.
The media, of course, are no innocent bystanders in this story. Although they care as little for the former prime minister as they do for the incumbent one — journalists’ relations with Netanyahu have been notoriously bad — they nevertheless work hand in glove with him. Many of them are real ghouls who like nothing better than drinking political blood.
Buried among all the froth is the very pressing question of how to deal with Damascus — or more to the point, whether Israel can strategically afford to withdraw from the Golan Heights.
The Camp David Accords with Egypt may not have brought the kind of peace most Israelis dreamed of, but they have certainly eased Israel’s strategic situation. In fact, they have become a cornerstone of Israel’s defense. An agreement with Syria could lead to a similar result, cementing Israel’s position in several ways.
Before 1967, the Syrians were able to shell the Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley; I myself was present during an incident on April 7, 1967, when Kibbutz Gadot was demolished and six Syrian MIGs were shot down. The war that broke out two months later ended that danger, but it did not render impossible another armed clash between Israel and Syria. The Syrian invasion of the Golan Heights in October 1973, which Israel was able to repel only with the greatest of difficulty, made clear as much.
Since then, though, things have changed dramatically. Whole arrays of new sensors, data links, precision-guided munitions and attack helicopters have been developed. Today Israel can hit moving targets with indirect fire, which can be directed from afar without paying much attention to topographical obstacles, just about as accurately as with direct fire.
Given such conditions, another Syrian attempt to overrun the Golan Heights would be tantamount to suicide. Indeed, at least two former chiefs of staff, Generals Amnon Shahak and Dan Halutz, have said as much.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, were Israel to withdrew to the valley below the Golan instead of preparing to fight on the heights — as it is now doing — a Syrian invasion might be even easier to repel. In such a scenario, the Syrians would have to funnel their forces into the only four roads leading down the west side of the Golan, instead of outflanking the Israeli military on the heights, as they almost succeeded in doing in 1973. Given the extraordinary capabilities of the Israeli military’s new weapons — assuming, of course, that those weapons are properly deployed and employed — the Syrians would be driving straight into a death trap.
A withdrawal from the Golan Heights, therefore, would arguably strengthen Israel’s defenses, not weaken them.
An agreement with Syria would also have other advantages. No sooner was the news of Israeli-Syrian talks announced than Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made clear that he was worried — which is reason enough to continue the talks. Peace with Israel would enable Syria to escape the embrace of Iran, which at present is Damascus’s only ally. A Syrian deal with Israel might also deal a deathblow to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In return, Israel would be asked to give up the entire Golan Heights, something many Israelis would find hard to swallow. Arrangements concerning early warning stations, demilitarized zones, the allocation of water and so on would have to be negotiated.
None of this will be easy, of course, and there are some risks. The risks, however, are not mortal ones, but rather risks that Israel should be willing and able to take in return for peace — just as it did when dealing with Egypt 30 years ago.
Martin van Creveld, a professor of military history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of “The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat, From the Marne to Iraq” (Presidio Press, 2007).