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Behind the Headlines: a Visit to the Golan Brings Home the Price of Giving Up Territory

A trip through the Golan Heights provoked mixed feelings among American Zionists who gathered here this week for the annual meeting of the Zionist General Council.

Many said they were deeply impressed by the development they saw and the evident attachment of residents to their homes.

At the same time, they acknowledged the harsh fact that the area may be part of the price exacted by any land-for-peace deal that Israel and Syria eventually reach in the peace talks.

Most of the visiting Zionists said they welcomed the peace process and would support any decision reached by the Israeli government and the Israeli people.

Others said they had deep misgivings.

All appeared to agree that it is highly unlikely Israel will give up the entire Golan Heights, despite Syria’s insistence that anything less will not suffice.

Speaking to the visitors after their tour, Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin said Israel would have to pay a “very heavy price” for a peace agreement.

He also said he personally believes the government is duty-bound to go to the people for a mandate to execute such a sweeping agreement, either in a referendum or with new elections. It is a formulation he had never before declared publicly.

Beilin’s candid remarks drew widespread applause, as well as some heckling, and high praise from many Americans, who said he helped balance the picture they saw earlier in the day.

Council delegates traveled the length and breadth of the region, whose prospective return to Syria in exchange for a peace agreement is becoming one of the most divisive issues in the country.

Twelve thousand Jewish Israelis live in 31 rural villages and one town in the Golan, captured from Syria in the 1967 war. Since then, industry, agriculture and tourism have assiduously been cultivated with the generous help and support of both Labor and Likud governments.

PEACE ‘ONLY WITH SACRIFICE’

The World Zionist Organization has also contributed significantly to development in the region through its Settlement Department. The department head vowed this week to continue funding investment at current levels despite the area’s uncertain future.

The Zionist visitors passed hills of neatly planted orchards of apple trees, cherry trees and vineyards, visited a winery, a kibbutz and a technological hothouse. They also listened to military briefings underscoring the Golan’s strategic importance.

“We feel what we’re doing here is an advantage for the whole country,” said Michael Landsberg, an official with the United Kibbutz Movement.

Landsberg, who is a resident of Kibbutz Ortal, said he supports the peace process. “The question is what is the right way and what is the price, if there should be a price.”

Landsberg said he and the majority of Golan residents are prepared to accept the government’s final decision. “But until then, it is our right and duty to struggle for the right solution.”

He suggested that before any treaty is signed, there be a lengthy period of confidence-building between Israel and Syria, including joint economic ventures that ensure “no one will start the next war.”

“I’ve been to the Golan before, but I had never before seen the industry and other enterprises,” said Ruth Hurwitz, a Hadassah leader from Baltimore.

“I guess I’m by nature a peacenik, but (after the visit, the Golan) became problematic for me,” she said. “I kept waiting to hear the other side.”

Hurwitz said Beilin later provided that other side, making her feel better able to accept the fact that “for peace, you do painful things.”

For Roy Clements, president of Mercaz USA, the Zionist arm of Conservative Jewry, the visit also was jarring.

“When one approaches this (with the feeling) there should be land for peace,” said Clements, “one still looks at the borders and sees what’s been developed, and (one) could become hawkish.”

“But the reality remains that peace will come only with sacrifice,” he said.

The central issue is “Israel’s secure borders,” said Carmela Kalmanson, immediate past president of Hadassah and current chairman of its medical organization.

“But ultimately if Israel is to be a light unto the nations, it has to be able to find a way to live in the world and find a path to peace.”

‘THERE’S A PRICE TO PAY’

“The people here want peace, and there’s a price to pay,” she said.

“I was at Yamit,” Kalmanson added, referring to the city in the Sinai returned to the Egyptians as part of the peace agreement. “I remember the pain,” she said.

“Normally, I don’t think Americans or anyone else should tell the Israelis what to do, because their kids are on the Golan Heights, and mine are not,” said Rabbi Ephraim Sturm, a delegate from the World Conference of Orthodox Synagogues.

“However, I am very worried about their reliance on the security of anyone besides themselves,” Sturm said, in apparent reference to reports of proposed U.S. security arrangements. Such anxiety from American Jews may make Israelis sit up and beware, he said.

“It’s nice to sit on Miami Beach on my beach blanket and tell Israel what it should and shouldn’t do, and what’s important to its security,” said Judy Kreutzer, a delegate from Florida.

“But I don’t live here, and I don’t have a right to make those decisions, and I think that goes for all Americans,” she said.

Samuel Schachter, a builder and developer who lives in Florida and Jerusalem, and pays taxes in both countries, was less sanguine.

Yitzhak Rabin ran for prime minister “on the promise he would never ever surrender the security of Israel and that we cannot believe the Syrians, and based on that, people voted for the Labor Party,” he said.

“Any return of the Golan is a betrayal of the security of Israel, and if Rabin is honest, he should go to the people before any agreement and ask for new elections,” he added.

“This is a step to push the Jews to the sea,” said Schacter, who is chairman of American Friends of Likud.

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