Public opposition to Israeli concessions on the Golan Heights mounted this week as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin reiterated readiness to give up parts of the strategic heights in exchange for peace with Syria.
Thousands of demonstrators at Ben-Gurion Airport chanted “Rabin is a traitor” and carried placards claiming Israeli sovereignty over the Golan to convey a message to Israeli negotiators departing Sunday for Washington to resume peace talks after a 10-day recess.
Itamar Rabinovich, head of Israel’s negotiating team with Syria, was handed a letter by right-wing Knesset members but refused to comment on its contents beyond telling reporters he was carrying out the instructions of the government.
The demonstration was part of wider public action planned by the Golan lobby, amid growing debate over the fate of the plateau overlooking northern Galilee.
Knesset member Rafael Eitan of the right-wing opposition Tsomet party told reporters on the Golan there would never be peace with the Arabs and that the most Israel could hope for was a non-aggression treaty.
He was touring the heights Sunday with other members of the Knesset who support continued Israeli control of the Golan as an expression of solidarity with the 13,000 settlers in the region.
The issue has divided the Labor camp’s own kibbutz movement, triggered controversy over the intentions of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin in respect to the area and prompted a halachic controversy over the measure of sanctity to be accorded the territory.
Within the Labor-affiliated settlement sector, the United Kibbutz Movement last week endorsed government policy on the Golan. Countering, members of kibbutzim on the heights circulated a petition over the weekend calling on the movement to take a stand opposing territorial compromise on the Golan.
Concern that the issue could divide the kibbutz movement was expressed by Moshe Peled, of Kibbutz Beit Hashita, a Tsomet Knesset member and a member of the kibbutz movement’s central committee.
Perceptions of Begin’s view of the Golan’s future received sharply different expression as both sides sought support for their views in those of Likud’s undisputed ideological leader.
Begin’s longtime personal secretary, Yehiel Kadishai, said the late prime minister had been opposed to any withdrawal from the Golan.
Kadishai was responding to a claim that Begin left the door open for negotiations with the Syrians by refraining from imposing Israeli sovereignty on the area in drawing up the Golan Law 13 years ago.
Police Minister Moshe Shahal of Labor said that by this action, Begin left a window open for territorial compromise.
But Begin associates and right-wing leaders denied this interpretation.
Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, in a telephone interview from Moscow, where he was on a visit, said the longtime Likud leader would never have given up any territory in the Golan.
Geula Cohen, former Knesset member for the right-wing Tehiya party, said Begin had told her party the Golan Law was intended to prevent Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan “ever.”
Moreover, the late premier intended to extend Israeli law to the West Bank as well in the absence of progress in talks with the Palestinians, five years after the signing of the Camp David accords, Cohen said.
However, the parliamentary record shows that Begin in 1981 told the Knesset the Golan Law did not mean the annexation of the Golan and that it would not prevent negotiations with the Syrians “once they are ready to negotiate.”
At the time Begin was responding to Amnon Rubinstein of the center-left Shinui party, who is today minister of energy and infrastructure.
Rabbinical leaders are at odds as well over the Golan.
Rabbi Shlomo Goren, a former chief rabbi, said over the weekend that the Golan is not part of the biblical Land of Israel and there is therefore no obligation to keep it.
Moreover, Syria represents the one real threat to Israel, said Rabbi Goren. “Anyone who dreams he will make peace with the entire world and not return the Golan in return for peace with Syria is leading the people astray,” he said.
But Rabbi Shaul Israeli, the head of Yeshivat Harav in Jerusalem, disagreed, saying there are several levels of sanctity in the Land of Israel. The Golan is not as sacred as other areas, he said, but it is still part of the country and should not be given up.
Moreover, yielding the Golan would have implications for other, more sacred areas of the land. Even Jordan is part of the settlement map of the people of Israel, he said.
Judging by political movement on the ground, the heated debate is premature.
Rabin met over the weekend with the heads of the Israeli negotiating teams and reportedly gave them no new instructions, certainly none that would mean any withdrawal from the Golan soon.
The prime minister reportedly wants a clear Syrian response on President Hafez Assad’s concept of peace with Israel before Jerusalem discloses what it is prepared to give up.
An idea raised unofficially here of leasing the land from Syrians was rejected outright over the weekend by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, who dismissed it as “ridiculous and silly.”
The feeling in Jerusalem as negotiators prepared to resume talks in Washington was that clarification of questions from the other side should be followed by raising the level of talks to that of foreign ministers or, alternatively, that a Camp David-style meeting should be convened, with active American mediation.