Those visiting the Golan Heights these days will find great scenery and wide open spaces, but also good news that is music to an Israeli’s ears: The Syrian flags are gone and Israeli flags are beginning to appear. Some 30 percent of the Druze residents of Majdal Shams have taken out Israeli citizenship, and the rest of the Druze villages seem to be following suit.
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After many years of living in anticipation of the Golan Heights being turned over by Israel to Syria, the Golan Druze are settling down to the reality of staying in Israel. Watching from afar the bloodbath taking place in Syria these past five years, and anxious for the fate of their Druze brethren in Syria, many consider themselves to be fortunate to be part of Israel. Getting used to living in a democratic state where law and order prevail, and where economic opportunities abound, almost comes naturally. An Israeli Golan Heights is beginning to be recognized as a permanent fixture of the Middle East.
Inevitably our thoughts turn back to the period 16 years ago when Ehud Barak was a hair’s breath – or more precisely a few meters – away from reaching an agreement with Hafez Assad that would have turned the Golan Heights over to Syria. And a few years earlier it was Yitzhak Rabin who was prepared to make such a deal. How long does it take before Middle East realities penetrate the minds of our leaders? There may still be a few stubborn Israelis who think that that would have been a good deal for Israel, but they are by now few and far between.
If you are prepared to relive the thinking that accompanied Barak’s attempts to withdraw the IDF from the south Lebanon security zone as part of an agreement with Syria involving relinquishing the Golan Heights, you might want to read the recent book by Brig. Gen. (res) Amos Gilboa “The True Story of how Israel left Lebanon (May 2000).” It is an excellent book which relates the thinking of politicians and generals during that time. What is astounding is that they all seemed to be looking at the near term, paying little heed to what might beckon beyond the horizon.
Getting out of Lebanon seemed to be the only thing on everyone’s minds, and the devil take the hindmost, meaning Israel’s ally the South Lebanon Army. Giving up the Golan Heights to Hafez Assad as part of a comprehensive deal would have presumably solved all the immediate problems, maybe even those of the unfortunate SLA, but the Syrians would not cooperate.
So now the problem facing our military minds aiming to have the IDF leave Lebanon even without an agreement with Syria was to keep the SLA from falling apart long enough so that the IDF could manage a quick surprise exit. The consequences of abandoning our allies who had fought shoulder-to-shoulder with us, had suffered more casualties than the IDF in the fight against Hezbollah and seemed to have no mothers to plead their cause, were simply ignored. It was a betrayal, pure and simple.
Abandoned was the tactic adopted during the last month of my tenure as defense minister, in June 1999, of aerial attacks on Lebanese infrastructure so as to force the Syrians, at the time in complete control of Lebanon, to rein in Hezbollah. Although it seemed to work, it was of no interest to those eager to trade the Golan Heights for a treaty with Hafez Assad.
In northern Israel there are today a few hundred families of SLA veterans who managed to escape to Israel with nothing but the clothes on their backs, during the IDF’s hasty withdrawal, many leaving behind their families and property. Those who expected to be recompensed for their many years of service alongside the IDF were to be sorely disappointed.
Uri Lubrani, one of Israel’s finest diplomats and the originator of the idea that Israel should withdraw from Lebanon in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 425 in the vain expectation that that would assure international legitimacy for drastic Israeli responses to future Hezbollah provocations, was inexplicably charged with taking care of the SLA veterans in Israel. This was way beyond the capability of the small staff at his disposal, and no alternate bureaucracy was set up to do the job. So it has remained to this day, to Israel’s everlasting shame.