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Staring at Syria
Israel annexed the 452-square-mile Golan Heights in 1981. This was done after defeating Syrian aggression in June 1967, and after the Yom Kippur surprise attacks of October 1973. When Israeli opponents of the annexation argued that application of Israeli law did not apply sovereignty, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled otherwise.
Now Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seeks a "settlement" with Syria. Damascus shares with Iran a determined commitment to destroy Israel and to support assorted terrorist groups with the same goal. Mr. Olmert's position is premised on an exchange of Golan for a codified peace with Syria. He fails, however, to appreciate the strategic consequences of such territorial surrender. Nor does he acknowledge the historic importance of Ramat HaGolan in Jewish nationhood.
If Syrian President Bashar Assad were serious about peace, he would agree to crack down on Lebanon's Hezbollah and also to close down offices of the many terrorist organizations that still thrive in his country. If formal talks were reopened, Syria would be risking nothing. Israel's risks would be existential.
Before 1967, Syria routinely attacked Israeli settlement east of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). Today, an Israeli Golan withdrawal, from an area less than 1 percent of Syria's total size, could leave the northern region of Israel open to wider Syrian or even Iranian invasion through the Jordan Valley. History records that hundreds of assaults on Israeli land west of the Jordan have been launched from or through Golan. Such a withdrawal would uproot 32 Golan Jewish communities and threaten a third of Israel's water supply. As Syria is a riparian state, any Golan transfer would also damage Israel's tourism and fishing industries.
The proposed Olmert argument is based on a naive legalism. An Israel-Syria agreement would allegedly require a demilitarized Golan Heights. In reality, a Syrian demilitarization of Golan, which is roughly the size of New York City's borough of Queens, could never happen. The prime minister's incorrect reasoning lies in the limits of legal guarantees in our anarchic world. A related problem concerns ever-changing missile and satellite technologies.
For real security, the Israeli military must retain its surveillance positions on Golan, especially on Mt. Harmon. Pre-1967 warning stations do not have a clear line of sight deep into Syrian territory. Israel should not be dependent upon third parties for crucial intelligence. Even a demilitarized Golan with advanced early warning systems involving the United States would be inadequate. This was already understood shortly after the June 1967 war, when the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a report advising permanent Israeli retention of the Golan.
Ironically, Israel's border with Syria has been more quiet than that country's borders with Egypt and Jordan, states with which Israel is "at peace." Damascus still demands that Israel withdraw to the pre-1967 line — not to the international border, but all the way to the Sea of Galilee. Yet, before 1948, the lake was entirely within Mandatory Palestine.
Syria has missiles that place all of Israel within easy range of WMD warheads. Any Israeli abandonment of Golan would exacerbate this condition. It would also enlarge the prospect of war on the Lebanese front, and the influence of terrorist factions still based securely in Damascus.
Golan, which ranges up to a height of 7,300 feet, dominates the Jordan Valley as well as the Bashan Plateau. Here there are only two natural terrain bottlenecks. These choke points are defensible. With this plateau in Syrian hands, however, enemy tanks, backed up by missiles and aircraft, could potentially penetrate Israel. This would remain true even if the area were "demilitarized."
Surrender of Golan Heights would be inconsistent with Israel's overall security. Israel must properly define its northern borders accordingly. Such definition is logically prior to defense.
Israel and the United States have coincident regional interests. Both countries must now "stand up" together to a determined Syrian enemy of peace and democracy in the Middle East. It is not in Israel's or America's interest to encourage renewed Syrian aggressions, or to enlarge geographic opportunity for radical Islamist sanctuaries. By resisting any additional Israeli territorial loss on Golan, there would also be far greater safety for the citizens of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles as well as for citizens of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Could anything be more important?
Louis Rene Beres lectures and publishes widely on Israeli security matters and international law. Maj. Gen. Paul E. Vallely (retired) is a military analyst and host of the radio show "Stand Up America."
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