There is a new idea dominating public discourse: Israel will recognize Syrian sovereignty over the Golan Heights and hold the territory under a long-term lease agreement. The towns and military camps will stay in place, with a Syrian flag over them, and in the meantime we will see whether the Syrians behave themselves, conduct a neighborly policy and maintain a stable regime. This way we can stay on the Golan and feel as if it isn't ours, fulfill the Israeli dream of not being suckers, talk with the Syrians and give them nothing for it. Peace in return for peace.
The initiative of sovereignty/lease is backed by ministers Avigdor Lieberman and Meir Sheetrit. They were joined late last week by MK Ami Ayalon, who is a candidate for the leadership of the Labor Party and is trying to shake off his leftist image and outflank his rival, Ehud Barak, who nearly returned the Golan to Syria seven years ago. The three disagree on one thing: Lieberman is proposing a leasing agreement for a period of 99 years, Sheetrit will make do with 25 years, and Ayalon told Gidi Weitz in an interview for Haaretz Magazine he is talking about "50 or 80 years."
Those in the know and who are familiar with the detailed history of the negotiations with Syria say Damascus will not agree to such a proposal. They believe that at best it is possible to talk about a shared park over the territory in dispute, along the bank of Lake Kinneret, but not about maintaining Israeli infrastructure over the entire Golan.
Before Bashar Assad is asked about his opinion, it is worthwhile to point out four problems inherent in the leasing idea. "The British also leased Hong Kong." That is not accurate. Britain occupied Hong Kong during the Opium Wars and established there a Crown Colony with Chinese agreement for an indefinite period of time. Later the British leased more territory (the "new territories") for 99 years. At the end of the lease period, Britain restored to China the territory it had leased, as well as the colony. Unlike the Israeli occupation of the Golan, which brought about the displacement of most of the Syrian residents there and the destruction of their villages, the British kept the Chinese residents in place and even looked after their rights, and did not settle in their place farmers from Devonshire and Scotland.
"Jordan agreed to exchange territory with us." True, but this involved limited, unsettled areas, not a large and populated piece of territory. Syria, wary of a precedent, was highly critical of this article in the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan.
"The communities and towns will stay put." Those behind the leasing initiative are proposing to maintain the status quo, but what would happen if Israel wishes to set up a new town? Will it ask permission from the Syrians? And if the Syrian bride of a Druze from Majdal Shams wishes to live with him in the village, will she be allowed entry, or will she be rejected on the basis of the new citizenship law? And what will happen when the lease expires? Will the residents evacuate their homes willingly?
"Where is the border?" The disagreement over the location of the border that torpedoed the negotiations between Syria and Israel during Barak's tenure will not be solved by the leasing model. Ayalon says the Syrians will fly their flag "on the international border." But this is not enough for Syria. It wants all the territory occupied during the Six-Day War, all the way to the shores of Lake Kinneret. Why should it compromise now?
The Lieberman-Ayalon proposal should be read differently. In practice they are saying the following: We want to continue controlling the Golan and are willing to take a chance that hundreds of soldiers will be killed and missiles will rain on the home front so that we hold on to the high ground and the water sources.
This has been the view of all Israeli governments since 1967, and this has not changed. In the Golan it is possible to have a "luxury" occupation, without roadblocks and world condemnation, mostly because Syria lacks the international supporters that the Palestinians have. It is possible and necessary to debate whether the risk is reasonable when compared with the return, but the public should not be deceived into thinking that there is a way to control the Golan for free. Certainly not when the war drums are sounded on both sides of the line on the Golan.
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