Once again, a misguided Prime Minister of Israel believes that the Israel Defense Force (IDF) could defend his imperiled country's borders without the 452-square mile Golan plateau. Israel annexed the Golan in 1981 after defeating Syrian aggression in June 1967, and after enduring the Yom Kippur surprise attacks of October 1973. When Israeli opponents of the annexation argued that the application of Israeli law did not apply real sovereignty, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled otherwise: "Wherever in the law it says Israel or the State of Israel,” said the Court, “Ramat HaGolan is included."
Now Prime Minister Olmert seeks a “settlement” with Syria. But Damascus shares with Iran a determined commitment to destroy Israel and to support assorted terrorist groups seeking the same goal. Mr. Olmert’s position is premised on an exchange of the Golan for a codified peace with Syria. Trying to placate the United States, he fails to appreciate the overwhelming strategic consequences of territorial surrender. Nor, it seems, does Mr. Olmert acknowledge the historic importance of Ramat HaGolan in Jewish nationhood.
If Syrian President Bashar Assad were serious about peace, he would agree to crack down on Lebanon's Hizbullah and also to close down offices of the many terrorist organizations that still thrive in his country. Even if formal talks were reopened, Syria would be risking nothing. Israel's risks, on the other hand, could be existential.
Before 1967, Syria routinely attacked Israeli kibbutzim east of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), from the mountainous areas. Today, an Israeli Golan withdrawal, from an area less than 1% (0.6%) of Syria's total size, could leave the northern region of Israel open to wider Syrian or even Iranian invasion through the Jordan Valley. History records that more than sixty assaults on the Land of Israel west of the Jordan were launched from or through the Golan. Such a withdrawal could also destroy and uproot 32 Golan Jewish communities and threaten a third of Israel's water supply. Syria is a riparian state, and any Golan transfer would damage Israel's tourism and fishing industries.
The proposed Olmert argument is based on a naïve legalism. Without an Israel-Syria peace agreement (only at Syria's insistence, a state of belligerency remains), a major war could presumably erupt at any time. Further, any Israeli plan to prevent war with Syria would allegedly require a demilitarized Golan Heights. In reality, a Syrian demilitarization of the Golan, which is roughly the size of New York City's borough of Queens, could never happen. The core problem of the Prime Minister’s incorrect reasoning lies in the stark limits of legal guarantees in our anarchic world. A related problem inheres in constantly changing missile and satellite technologies.
For real security, the IDF must retain its surveillance positions on the Golan, especially on Mt. Harmon. Pre-1967 warning stations do not have a clear line of sight deep into Syrian territory. Israel should not be dependent upon third parties for crucial intelligence. Even a demilitarized Golan with advanced early warning systems involving the United States would be inadequate. This was already understood shortly after the June 1967 war, when the U.S. Joint Chiefs (JCS) issued an authoritative report advising permanent Israeli retention of the Golan.
Ironically, for the past forty years, Israel’s border with Syria has been more quiet than that country’s borders with Egypt and Jordan, states with which Israel is formally "at peace." Damascus still demands that Israel withdraw to the pre-1967 line - not to the international border (as in the case of Egypt), but all the way to the Sea of Galilee. Yet, before 1948, the lake was entirely within Mandatory Palestine.
Syria has missiles that place all of Israel within easy range of chemical and other WMD warheads. An Israeli abandonment of the Golan would do nothing to change this intolerable strategic situation. Nor would it reduce the prospect of all-out war on the Lebanese front or impair the influence of various Palestinian terrorist factions still based securely in Damascus.
The Golan, which ranges up to a height of 7300 feet, dominates the Jordan Valley (the lowest point on Earth) as well as the Bashan Plateau, northeast up to Damascus. Here there are only two natural terrain bottlenecks. These choke points are defensible. With this plateau in Syrian hands, however, enemy tanks, backed up by missiles and aircraft, could potentially penetrate Israel. This would remain true even if the area were “demilitarized.”
Surrender of the Golan Heights would be inconsistent with Israel's overall security and its protection of vulnerable populations. Israel must properly define its northern borders accordingly. Such definition is logically prior to defense. The Golan, long important in Jewish history, must remain firmly in Israeli hands.
Israel and the United States have coincident security interests. Together, both countries must now “stand up” to an especially determined enemy of peace and democracy in the Middle East. It is manifestly not in Israel's or America’s interest to encourage renewed Syrian aggressions or to enlarge geographic opportunity for radical Islamist sanctuaries. By resisting an additional Israeli territorial loss on the Golan, there would be greater safety for the citizens of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles as well as those of Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv. Within such an understanding of courage, determination and inter-dependence lies the most meaningful endgame.