Keeping the Golan won't protect Israel from Syria
Benefit of peace with Syria outweighs risk of Golan Heights pullout, IDF top brass estimate.
On June 19, 1967, a week and a half after the end of fighting in the Six-Day War, ministers, including Menachem Begin, were willing to give up on the gains made on the Syrian front in exchange for peace.
"Israel is proposing a peace agreement on the basis of the international border and the security needs of Israel," the government statement read, listing the following conditions: "A peace agreement would require: 1. Demilitarization of the Syrian heights currently held by the IDF forces; 2. An absolute promise not to interfere with the flow of water from the sources of the Jordan [River] to Israel."
Thus were created, 42 years ago, the basic conditions for an agreement, which are still valid today.
If negotiations between Syria and Israel are resumed, given the fact that pulling out of the Golan Heights is a known price, what will be left to discuss is the security of Israel under such circumstances.
Despite the significant changes that have occurred in the structure of the Syrian army, including its size and weapons systems, an agreement demilitarizing the heights and securing the water sources of Israel (the Kinneret and the sources of the Jordan River), in order to ensure security would be sufficient.
There will be a need to reach agreement on other issues pertaining to security, but these will be minor and will stem from the two basic conditions.
At the Israel Defense Forces headquarters there is general consensus that the benefit of a peace accord with Syria outweighs the risk of pulling out of the Golan Heights.
This is the reason that Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has publicly called to return to the negotiation table and has said that "we should not be disheartened by Assad."
The IDF brass is convinced that it is possible to reach arrangements that will not undermine the country's security.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak has also stressed that "the signs of peace from Syria should not be looked down upon."
A central defense issue on the Syrian front is concern about a surprise attack. Actually, a pullback from the Golan Heights will improve deterrence. A demilitarized zone, free of offensive forces, will distance the armies of the two states further and would create a buffer where, if Syrian forces enter they will be immediately discovered, and guarantee a deterrent against the possibility of war.
If early warning stations on Mount Hermon are added to the equation, it will be possible to detect a concentration of forces and expose violations of the demilitarization agreement.
The next war with Syria, if it occurs, will be characterized less by armor battles and conquest of territory, and more by missile and rocket launches from behind the front lines.
The Syrian army has about 1,000 ballistic missiles, with a range of 300-700 kilometers, covering every point inside Israel. More problematic, from Israel's point of view is Syria's rocket arsenal. The IDF does not really have a response for the thousands of 220 mm rockets (with a range of up to 70 kilometers) and the 302 mm ones (with a range of 90 kilometers), like it had no response for the thousands of Katyusha rockets launched by Hezbollah in 2006.
Moreover, the Syrian army has deployed tens of thousands of BM-21 rockets, whose range is 20 kilometers. The Golan Heights does not contribute a thing in countering the missile and rocket threat.
An international force in a buffer zone in the Golan Heights, separating between the armies and inspecting both sides, will fulfill the conditions of the agreement, and will add an important element to Israel's sense of security. The Syrians seemingly agreed in talks at Shepherdstown in 2000 to the deployment of U.S. or European forces, as a force in the demilitarized buffer zone.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must decide whether achieving peace with Syria is a strategic target, as the chief of staff and defense minister think. If he decides yes, then the argument that has been made more than once to excuse delaying an agreement with the Syrians, that the cost is too high because it may undermine Israel's security, is patently invalid.
Syrian President Bashar Assad appears to have made the strategic decision to sign a peace accord with Israel. If there are those who think that this is mere posturing, this is the time to test him. The security of Israel will not be endangered if it turns out that Assad does indeed mean what he says.