Here’s the beginning of one newspaper article about Syria that you didn’t read this week: “Israel Weighs Golan Invasion.” “U.S. Warns It Not To Act.”
“Israeli troops exchanged fire with Syrian rebels on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and Syrian army artillery fire killed two vacationing Israelis on a nearby beach, Israel’s Cabinet met in a lengthy session. Now that jihadist forces linked to Al Qaeda are in control of the hills running down to Israel’s largest lake and main water source, Israel is considering retaking the heights returned to Syria as part of the 1995 Israeli-Syrian peace treaty. Iran’s warnings that it will not stand by if Israel acts have alarmed officials in Washington.”
Remember 1995? That was the year of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. It was also the year in which secret negotiations between Rabin’s government and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad were literally meters away from concluding an agreement that would have had Israel giving back the entire Golan Heights wrested from Syria in 1967.
Rabin — like other Israeli leaders before and after him — was ready to surrender the whole Golan in return for peace, one of the sticking points being whether the peacetime border would actually touch the Sea of Galilee’s waters, as demanded by the Syrians, or run a stone’s throw away from them. Assad wanted the right to swim in the lake, not just to skip stones in it, which was one of the reasons the talks failed.
Today we can say that it’s lucky they did.
But that’s not what educated opinion was saying back in the 1990s or, for that matter, in the ’70s, the ’80s and the early 2000s. Then, the smart word was — in Jerusalem, in Washington, in the world’s capitals and media — that peace with Syria was a far greater strategic asset for Israel than a few hundred square miles of disputed territory that would only be the cause of more wars. Ordinary Israelis who thought otherwise (and there were a lot of us) were scorned. Ours was primitive thinking, we were told. Territory was a foot soldier’s fetish, and we lived in an age of missiles and rockets. It was a peasant’s mentality to refuse to part with land for something more valuable.
We were, of course, right. Not that anyone could have predicted with certainty that in the second decade of the 21st century, the Syrian regime would be toppled by Islamic rebels whose hatred for Israel would far surpass that of the Assads. What one could have predicted, however, was that the future had few certainties of any kind. The land that was here today would still be here tomorrow. The government or political constellation that was here today might be tomorrow’s distant memory. That much, peasantlike, we knew.
Nor have the statesmen and pundits, with one or two exceptions, had the honesty to admit they were wrong. This was predictable, too. Educated opinion is never wrong; it just gets more and more educated. One could have a great deal of fun hauling out quotations from the archives in which this or that illuminatus of our times explains the benefits of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan and the benightedness of being against it.
I’ll refrain from that pleasure. The question is whether at least some of these illuminati are capable of a real education, which would include learning from their mistakes.
Let’s move south to the Jordan River from the Golan. It’s no more a real river, to be sure, than the Sea of Galilee is a real sea; in America it might pass for a creek. Still, it flows in a deep ravine of which it isn’t so easy to get to the other side, in a hill-backed valley that is a natural boundary between Palestine and Transjordan. Viewed from the ground, though not perhaps from a space satellite, river, ravine and valley form a barrier well worth controlling.
Foot soldier thinking, we’re told again. How is any of this going to stop a nuclear-tipped Iranian missile? A peace agreement with the Palestinians, on the other hand, joined by pro-Western Jordan — now that would set Iran back on its heels. And since the Palestinians aren’t going to sit down at a table on which the Jordan River and Valley are not placed; only a retro mind would oppose placing them there.
Perhaps. But the river and the valley will be around for a while. A Palestinian government capable of making and maintaining peace with Israel, or King Abdullah’s regime in Amman, might not be. Everyone thought the Assads were forever, too. They didn’t last half that long.
Hillel Halkin is an author and translator who has written widely on Israeli politics and culture and was the Forward’s Israel correspondent from 1993 to 1996.