Benjamin Netanyahu's promise that "a government headed by the Likud will keep the Golan Heights as a strategic asset for the the country's security" shows he is consistent. Fifteen years ago, Netanyahu made it clear that the presence of the Israel Defense Forces on the Golan was the "stopper" preventing Syrian armored forces from breaking through into Israel, and it seems that since then he has not changed his position.
It is indeed true that, since that statement, the Syrian army has managed to get an additional layer of rust on its weaponry, and the IDF, particularly the air force, has expanded its qualitative gap over the Syrians. And three more prime ministers (one of them Netanyahu himself) have made it clear to the Syrians that they would be prepared to withdraw from all of the Golan Heights, or most of it, in return for peace - but Netanyahu is still holding his ground.
It can be assumed that not merely strategic, but also political considerations motivated Netanyahu to say what he did. And indeed the surveys show that the majority of the public (including, of course, the Likud's electoral basis) does not support a withdrawal from the Golan. At the same time, since according to the surveys Netanyahu is the candidate most likely to set up the next government, it is worthwhile examining to what extent the Golan Heights is indeed "a strategic asset for the country's security," and to what extent giving it up in return for demilitarization of the entire area between Damascus and the border with Israel is a suitable alternative.
The situation today is that the major part of the Syrian army is located between the Golan Heights and the Damascus area, and the entire Golan is in the range of hundreds of Syrian artillery barrels. The significance derived from this is clear - except for deterrence (which so far has indeed been effective on the Israeli-Syrian border, but less so vis-a-vis Syria's allies in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip) Israel does not have the means to prevent a heavy bombardment of its communities or the IDF bases on the Heights.
Since the effectiveness of deterrence is limited (as was proven during the Yom Kippur War), there is a possibility that the Syrians would decide to attack. Israel's response would no doubt be severe and painful, and it is reasonable to assume that the IDF would not only carry out a comprehensive ground attack in the direction of Damascus but would also deal a severe blow to the Syrian infrastructure. That the Syrians would pay a heavy price and perhaps learn a lesson is not clear. But Israel too would pay a heavy price, both in the destruction of its settlements on the Heights and in casualties among its soldiers, as well as through attacks by ground-to-ground Syrian missiles in the Israeli heartland. It is reasonable to assume that we would be the victorious side but the price would be heavy. And after that too, the Syrians would continue to demand that the Golan be returned to them.
The alternative to a military and civilian presence on the Golan Heights is dismantling the settlements, withdrawing the IDF to the west of the Jordan River and giving the territory back to Syria. According to the understandings that have already been reached with the Syrians during previous talks, the area between Damascus and the border with Israel would be demilitarized on the basis of the Sinai model in the peace agreement with Egypt. In that situation, no Israeli target would be in the range of Syrian artillery. Even more importantly, any attempt by Syria to attack Israel with a ground assault would come up against the crushing technological superiority of the IDF. If the IDF is wise enough not to send ground forces into such a battle but rather to destroy the Syrian army with tactical weapons with which the IDF is well equipped, there would be no ground battle at all and Israeli losses would be minimal.
Contrary to what happened during the Second Lebanon War, where the biggest problem was locating the rocket launchers of Hezbollah, in a confrontation with tanks, armored personnel carriers and the logistics convoys of the Syrian army, it would be easy to locate the targets while they are moving toward the border with Israel, and after they are located, the chances of destroying them would be almost assured. Under similar circumstances, the Iraqi army was destroyed in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 when the coalition forces suffered some 100 dead, a relatively small number.
Therefore, on the plane of strategic considerations, Israel is faced with the choice of being rich and healthy or poor and sick.
In addition to cutting down Syria's conventional power to act, there are additional bonuses on the security level - reducing the Syrians' motivation to take action against Israel, isolating Iran, weakening the radical regional axis with the emphasis on Hezbollah, and the removal of Hamas headquarters in Damascus.
True, there is also a price to be paid. There are well-established settlements that will be required to be evacuated, excellent wineries from which we will have to separate, beautiful scenery which, if we wish to see it again, will require us to cross the border. But it is reasonable to assume that Netanyahu too will agree that concessions of this kind are less relevant to the country's security.
And if that is so, it would be fitting for him to explain to the public in a more detailed fashion what he means when promises (or threatens) that "a government headed by the Likud will keep the Golan Heights as a strategic asset to the security of the country."
The writer is a lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the University of Haifa.