Residents Seek a New Golan Brand Image'

Golan Heights residents recently set up a strategic planning committee to draft a long-term plan for creating a "name recognition" for the heights that would be devoid of political connotations.

Yehuda Harel, a resident of Kibbutz Marom Golan and a former MK from the defunct Third Way party, said the committee has concluded that the Golan, thanks to the Oslo-era slogan "the nation is with the Golan," is now viewed as a political cause. "This is very bad in terms of attitudes toward the Golan and willingness to settle there."

"We ourselves are responsible for the Golan's political `brand-name,'" he said. "All we accomplished is that the Golan evokes the controversy over whether it is proper or forbidden to evacuate it ... Now we will try to change the Golan `brand-name' to the best place to live - a place with the feel of the old Israel, in the best sense of the word."

Harel admitted that at a time when the government is talking about evacuating West Bank settlements, the plan also has a political angle. He said he is convinced Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has no intention of evacuating the Golan to make a peace deal with Syria. In conversations he has held with people well acquainted with Sharon's thinking, he learned that for Sharon, the only reason to evacuate settlements is demographic - and on the Golan, there is no demographic problem.

Golan residents are also trying to expand their population. Fifteen new neighborhoods are currently under construction, and planners hope to have completed 250 to 300 new houses by the end of the year. In Marom Golan's new neighborhood, 15 houses have already been sold and another 90 families from the center of the country have expressed interest. At a time of severe recession, Harel said, real estate agents term this a "fantastic achievement."