Israel and Syria have resumed peace talks. Peace is a good thing. In exchange for peace, Israel should withdraw from the Golan.
It is not that simple.
While it is clear that withdrawal is the price of peace, disagreement over the Golan’s precise delineation is what led to the talks’ failure in the past. Syria demands a return to the 1967 lines, Israel to the 1923 mandatory border.
Under the 1923 demarcation, the recognized basis for all Mideast negotiations, the Golan ends just meters east of the Jordan River and Sea of Galilee. Between 1948 and 1967, however, Syria encroached upon Israeli territory, with two enclaves along the Jordan and a strip on the lake’s northeastern shore. The 1967 lines would thus give Syria more than 100% of the internationally recognized Golan, a claim to the lake’s water and end full Israeli access around it.
In agreeing to withdraw from “the Golan” in the past, Israel thus insisted on the 1923 border. However, since that delineation provides it with just a few meter wide strip of land on the sea’s eastern shore, it demanded that this be widened, by some 200 meters, to ensure its control and access around it.
If the sides were so close, meters, why did the talks collapse? For Syria, it was a matter of pride. As the vanguard of Arab nationalism, it could not accept less of the Golan, as it defines it, than the “traitor”, Sadat, had gotten from Israel in Sinai, i.e. 100%.
For Israel, these few meters were a vital matter of water (the Sea of Galilee is its primary fresh water source), access around it and maybe most importantly, a sense that the Syrian demand was simply unjust, going beyond the Arab and international claim for withdrawal to the international border, in effect, a Syrian attempt to dictate a humiliating defeat. A withdrawal would be hard to sell to a security conscious public to begin with, with this additional humiliation, it would be impossible. Israel should thus withdraw only if Syria renounces any water rights and agrees to the international boundary, or at least to finesse its actual demarcation (e.g. an "international peace park”).
Popular images aside, the Golan “Heights” are not the Himalayas. A small area, 12 by 45 miles, the Golan provides a vital military presence, overlooking northern Israel, where it is only five (yes, 5) miles wide. Even impartial military observers have blanched at the thought that Israel might consider withdrawing from the Golan.
Withdrawal is, indeed, military insanity, justifiable only as part of a peace agreement, with stringent security guarantees, such as demilitarization, an international force and early warning arrangements to monitor compliance and special arrangements regarding Syria’s vast chemical weapons arsenal. Syria should also be required to sever its military relations with Iran and all relations with Hizballah, Hamas and other terrorist organizations.
Syria’s willingness to fully normalize relations with Israel, is a test of its intentions, which exceeds its practical importance. Given Syria’s backward economy, the actual scope for economic ties, except tourism, is probably limited. Nonetheless, the Israeli public will only agree to withdraw if convinced that Syria, unlike Egypt and Jordan, will engage in real peace.
Some argue that the strategic benefits for Israel derived from simply removing Syria from the circle of confrontation states, regardless of normalization, are sufficient. This is arguably true on a purely strategic basis, but will not fly politically in Israel. If Syria truly seeks peace, it must finally cease treating normalization as a bitter poison to be swallowed and embrace it.
Israeli-Syrian peace portends a major restructuring of the regional landscape, including a severe blow to Iran and the radical camp, with positive ramifications for Iraq. The Syrian regime is heinous, but the Saudi regime – a US ally – is even more so, the difference being that it has oil. Encouraging reform is laudable, but not at the expense of overarching strategic considerations. The next administration should be actively engaged.
For Syria, gaining US good graces, escaping Iran’s embrace, weathering the international investigation of its involvement in the killing of the former Lebanese president and joining the modern international economy, are almost as important as the return of the Golan. To this end, it will have to reconcile with Israel’s existence, abandon its leadership of the "nationalist" camp, sever strategic ties with Iran and others and end its support for Iraqi insurgents
For Israel, an agreement means withdrawing from an area of incontrovertibly vital strategic importance, in exchange for a freezing peace, with a regime that may be replaced in the future by a radical Islamic one. There is no doubt that peace with Syria, which would end the conflict with all of Israel’s immediate neighbors, except the Palestinians and Lebanon, would be of huge strategic benefit. Syria, however, gets real estate, Israel may get a state of mind.