The Return of the Golan

It is worthwhile for Israel to be prepared, at least on the cognitive level, for the revival of the Syrian track.

Sometimes one has to listen to the silences, not the statements, of politicians and other leaders. Ariel Sharon does not have a great deal to say about determining Israel's northern border and arranging relations with Syria. Negotiations over the Golan Heights, which were a central focus for his predecessors, have been off the agenda during his term of office. When the matter is mentioned, Sharon passes over the issue, saying that extending a hand to the Syrians would interfere with American pressure on them.

The prime minister has a strategy that goes beyond his tactical response. He would like the Golan to remain under Israeli control and believes it would be dangerous to leave there. That is why he has taken an opposite approach to that of his predecessors. They turned to the Syrian track to avoid the Palestinian issue and evacuation of settlements in the West Bank. In the last decade, withdrawal from the Golan Heights was seen as a simpler challenge than a confrontation with the Yesha settlers' council. Sharon prefers to evacuate settlements in the territories rather than touch the Golan issue. In his case, the Palestinian channel bypasses the Syrian one.

So long as the Palestinian intifada was raging and Bashar Assad was acting in a foolishly defiant way toward Washington, it was possible to forget about the Syrian track. The Golan issue was stored away in the American freezer until such time as there were changes in Damascus. But it may be possible to break the impasse. At the end of the month, the conclusions of the international investigation into the murder of Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri will be published. Current assessments talk of a blow to the Syrian regime, which will be implicated in the assassination. Assad and his regime will try to survive, as usual, by employing brinkmanship. A few middle-level officials will perhaps be sacrificed, for allegedly being overzealous. Perhaps they will present their regime as a barrier to chaos in an important country. Perhaps the exercise will fail and the regime in Damascus, along with its puppets in Beirut, will collapse under the blows falling in the region under the Bush Doctrine.

If the Americans succeed and Assad is replaced by some sort of Syrian Abu Mazen who will speak in moderate tones and represent the country's Sunni majority, the Golan will soon be back on the agenda. Assad's successors would demand of the Americans that they strengthen their regime by means of an Israeli territorial concession. This is apparently the reason why Israel prefers an Assad who is weak, isolated and under pressure to a change of government that would upset the "northern system." An Assad in power means that the Golan remains in Israeli hands.

Israel will respond to changes in Damascus with attempts to gain time and "test the seriousness of the regime's intentions," and will also claim that it is difficult for it to digest simultaneous concessions in the West Bank and the Golan Heights. But it is worthwhile for Israel to be prepared, at least on the cognitive level, for the revival of the Syrian track.

How should it do? The most obvious thing would be to revive the negotiations that were stopped in the spring of 2000 after they broke down over the Kinneret's coastline. The maps are ready, the positions are well-known, but it is difficult to identify the attraction of such an arrangement. That is why it would also be worthwhile devoting time to thinking about an alternative, one that was successfully applied in Lebanon and the territories - the unilateral way.

Instead of hiding behind vague declarations as it did in previous talks, Israel could define its vital interests on the Golan heights (high points and water sources) and announce that it will not make concessions about them, as it did with regard to Ma'aleh Adumim and East Jerusalem. The Syrians could be offered compensation, and a formula could be found to make it clear that the Kinneret is more important to Israel than an embassy in Damascus.

There are disadvantages to a unilateral withdrawal from the Golan Heights. It would mean forgoing the agreement that has ensured quiet on the Syrian border for 31 years. It would mean abandoning the demand for new security arrangements.

Above all, there is no oppressive occupation of a hostile population on the Golan, there is no terror, and there is no demographic problem or international pressure as there is regarding the West Bank. This is why there appears to be no reason to feel pressured over the issue and that it is possible to put off a solution for a few years. Nevertheless, while Assad's chair is shaky, it is worthwhile thinking about a creative response on the Syrian track.