- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2008

KATZRIN, Golan Heights | Life has suddenly become very uncertain for the residents of the 32 Israeli communities in these highlands captured from Syria in 1967.

Recent peace overtures with Syria have put their homes on the trading block, raising the prospect that they could be evicted in scenes reminiscent of the evacuation of the Gaza Strip in 2005.

But the Golan occupies a very different place in the Israeli national psyche from Gaza or the West Bank, where ideologically driven settlers live in tense proximity to a Palestinian majority.

A movie screened at a two-year-old tourist center in this Jewish settlement recasts the strategic plateau not as a potential conflict zone but as an exotic and enticing vacation spot.

Airborne cameras sweep over emerald grazing fields that have replaced the minefields left when the Golan was captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. Surround-sound speakers thunder with galloping horse hooves instead of the tanks that once rumbled across the plateau.

Israelis feel more at home in the Golan than in the West Bank and even Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods. Now that the Golan is back on the bargaining table, Israeli residents there bristle at comparisons with the religious nationalist settlers of the West Bank and the former Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip.

“We’re not missionaries. This is not a cult,” said tourist center owner and Golan resident Haim Ohayon, explaining why the tourist film makes almost no mention of politics or history.

“The public in the Gaza Strip disengaged from the people before the disengagement. We want to connect to the people.”

Since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the Golan Heights’ border between Israel and Syria has been the calmest of any border zone. Despite the ubiquitous presence of military vehicles on the roads, residents ask rhetorically why a treaty with Syria is necessary when the Golan is more tranquil and more secure than Tel Aviv.

With a mostly quiescent Arab population of just 18,000 Druze villagers, there is none of the fear for personal safety that existed throughout the West Bank and Gaza after the start of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

That allows Israelis to feel at home making day trips to the ski slopes on the Hermon Mountain range, visiting cherry orchards just a few hundred yards from the Syrian border fence or patronizing restaurants in Druze villages.

It also enabled Israel to pass legislation in 1981 that extended Israeli laws to the Golan in place of the military regime - a de facto annexation similar to the inclusion of East Jerusalem into Israel immediately after the 1967 war.

“Even more than the West Bank, people have grown up thinking of the Golan as part of Israel,” said Gershom Gorenberg, the author of a book on the settlers titled “The Accidental Empire.”

Ironically, Mr. Gorenberg said, the Golan is recognized by the international community as belonging to Syria, while there’s never been an official sovereign over the West Bank.

“It’s not dangerous to live there. The population of non-Israelis there is small, it’s not a demographic issue. The whole set of images associated with the West Bank is not there.”

According to two recent public-opinion polls, about two-thirds of Israelis oppose giving back the Golan Heights to Syria. In addition to seeing the Golan as their own, Israelis say they are skeptical that giving back the territory will prompt a full normalization of ties with Syria. They also worry about northern Israel’s vulnerability to attack if Syria - an ally of Iran - is permitted within just a few yards of the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s most important source of water.

“What’s special about the Golan is that there are only Jewish communities. There are no Palestinian villages,” said Yoni Dolev, a 38-year-old native of St. Paul, Minn. “I’m not a settler. The Golan Heights is a different story.”

The settlers who moved up to the Golan Heights came from secular kibbutzim farming collectives dominated by the Labor Party. That’s why few Israelis refer to them as “mitnachlim,” the often derogatory Hebrew term for the settlers of the West Bask and Gaza.

Unlike the religious settlers who view territories conquered in 1967 as part of a biblical birthright, the farmers of the Golan brought with them a dovish attitude toward the land-for-peace compromise.

Still, disappointment from failed peace forays of the 1990s and recent years, combined with the rise of Islamist militancy, has soured many Golan residents on the idea of talks with Syria.

“I’m the first person that wants peace,” said Ronen Gilboa, a resident of Kibbutz Ein Zivan who sat in an outdoor cafe surrounded by orchards that attracted 5,000 tourists every weekend last summer. “But I don’t believe it will happen in our generation.”

To be sure, there are plenty of Israeli politicians, military advisers and analysts who have advocated negotiating with Syria, even though the United States refuses to engage President Bashar Assad.

A peace deal with Syria, the argument goes, would score a blow against the rising influence of Iran and its drive to become a regional superpower.

“Iran would be losing a big ally whom it had firmly in its camp,” said Meir Javendanfar, the co-author of “The Nuclear Sphynx of Tehran.”

“Relations with Israel will start impacting Syrian calculations when it comes to cooperation with Iran. It will also put pressure on relations with Hezbollah.”

Back at the visitors center, Mr. Ohayon holds business meetings inside a souvenir shop stocked with bottles from the Golan Heights Winery and a Golan microbrewery.

Would he resist a treaty that requires settlers to leave the Golan Heights? No, he said. “We’re not above the law.”

Like other residents here, his dream is for Israel to cut a deal with Syria that would allow Israel to remain on the Golan Heights - he suggests a 200-year lease - but he acknowledges it´s a less than realistic vision.

“For peace with Syria, there needs to be a new world order.”

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