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  Israel Faxx                                      \/ /  \/ /
  Sept 21, 1994 Volume 2, #171                     / /\__/_/\
  Electronic World Communications, Inc.           /__\ \_____\
  8916 Reading Road, Cincinnati, OH 45215             \  /
  Internet: Phone: (513) 563-7424   \/

Golan's Quagmire Forces Israel to Rethink Future

By Al Pessin (Jerusalem)

A senior US official handling Middle Eastern affairs, Dennis Ross, is visiting Syria and Israel this week to try to move those countries closer to agreement on key issues -- chief among them, the future of the Golan Heights. Ross is laying groundwork for a similar trip next month by Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who is trying to follow Israel's agreements with the Palestinians and Jordan by forging an accord with Syria. With the future of the Heights under active negotiation, following are some of the strategic and emotional issues involved.

The narrow roads up to the Golan Heights twist and turn along steep mountainsides, forcing motorists to the precarious edges of long, rocky and nearly vertical drops. At the top of the heights are the broad cultivated fields of Israeli settlements, and the spectacular, nearly straight-down view of other settlements below -- a view Syrian gunners once used to rain shells on farmers in their homes and their fields. An old, rusty Syrian artillery piece remains near the edge, now next to a storage building for bales of hay, and serving only as a prop for tourists' pictures.

This high ground, roughly 12 miles wide and 42 miles long, commands vast stretches of the valleys below -- west and southwest to Israel and northeast to Syria. Strategically, Israeli generals disagree on just how crucial the heights are to the country's security. Some say it is vital, others say controlling the heights is more of a convenience. But to many Israelis, the memories of heavy casualties suffered in taking the heights in 1967 remain vivid, and they are reluctant to give them up. A recent public opinion survey indicated Israelis are about evenly divided on whether to return some of the Golan to Syria, but very few favor returning all of it.

That is what Syria is demanding, and in spite of public denials, that is the direction many Israelis believe their government is moving. At a recent news conference, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Israel knows it must pay a price for peace, and must also ensure its security.

He tried to walk a middle road in the dispute over the Golan's future -- saying the terms of the final settlement are probably not yet known by anyone. "The solution to the Syrian-Israeli conflict does not lie in the Syrian position or in the Israeli position, but in a third position that should be worked out and agreed upon. In all, the negotiations in the past when the two parties came, each of them with its own position, finally neither of the parties accepted the idea of the other party, but both of them agreed to find a third solution, which takes into consideration the most sensitive points of both parties."

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has offered a small, symbolic withdrawal in return for full peace and then further talks after three years -- with no guarantee of what the final border will be. But such talk does not impress Israeli activists who want to keep the Golan Heights, including the 13,500 residents of the region.

They are spread out in more than 30 settlements, engaged mainly in agriculture but also some industry, including the production of some of Israel's best wine. Their land also includes the sources of about 30 percent of Israel's fresh water -- a resource they say cannot be placed in Syria's hands.

The settlers' spokeswoman, Marla van Meter, says with Israel's military strength and potential financial incentives from the United States, Israel does not need to offer Syria land for peace.

"The residents of the Golan are working toward convincing the present government of Yitzhak Rabin to start negotiating with Syria on the basis of peace for peace, that peace in this region benefits both countries, in terms of opportunities for trade, tourism, diplomatic ties, etc."

Van Meter says Syria would benefit much more from such economic development than it would from regaining control of the fairly small territory of the Golan Heights. But she knows she would have a difficult time convincing Syrian President Hafez al Assad of that. Assad has made unprecedented moves in recent weeks to show his interest in a peace agreement, but he continues to demand the return of all the territory he lost in 1967.

So, that is the tough issue at the center of these talks. Either Syria will get all of the territory -- or it will not. And while Peres says "creativity" could be the solution, that means worry and possibly disaster for Marla van Meter and the other Golan residents.

Do we live in this fear of "three years left, with the clock ticking" or do we believe that those small, cosmetic concessions will be enough for the State of Israel and we go on with our lives happily as we have the past 27 years? It is difficult," van Meter says. "So, we have to fight against this idea of land concessions and especially the dismantling of communities here."

She says the government has already gone back on its campaign promise not to give up any of the Golan Heights region. And she says it would be a shame to return the land to Syria -- still a radical, totalitarian state which never settled or developed the area when it controlled it -- and in the process to uproot thousands of productive Israelis and risk the country's security. Others argue that a peace treaty would guarantee Israel's security, and to achieve that is worth giving up the Golan Heights and forcing a few thousand people to move.

Those are some of the issues US envoy Ross and his delegation must wrestle with as they seek some diplomatic common ground between Syria and Israel, in an effort to keep the momentum of the Middle East peace process going.

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