KATZRIN, Israel, Dec. 9 (JTA) — Emotions ranging from hope to uncertainty to anger fill the 16,000 Golan Heights residents as their fate is again the topic of Israeli-Syrian peace talks.
Negotiations resume next week in Washington, and residents here know that the price for peace with Syria is likely to be the return of all or most of the Golan, the strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six- Day War.
“We are praying for peace — a peace with the Golan,” says Sammy Bar-Lev, head of the regional council of Katzrin, the Golan’s largest town, with 6,500 residents.
“It must be a peace we can live with, not a Yamit-style peace,” he adds, recalling the return of that Sinai settlement to Egypt in 1982, in which some Israeli settlers were forcefully evicted and the town was razed to the ground.
Later that year, Israel passed a bill that applied Israeli law and jurisdiction to the Golan. The international community never recognized the move, and the de facto annexation has provided the Golan’s Jewish residents with little reassurance about their future.
Bar-Lev, a 30-year resident of the Golan, talks of years of uncertainty as successive governments debated the territory’s fate. He is sure that the Israeli public will reject any agreement with Hafez Assad, Syria’s president, that involves the return of the Golan.
In part, the moderation reflects the differences between Golan settlers and their counterparts in the West Bank, which include those who are vehemently opposed to any Israeli withdrawal from those areas.
For West Bank settlers, life has been a constant struggle against the indigenous Palestinian population who accuse Israel of stealing their land, yet the Golan’s land was virtually uninhabited when Israel entered, aside from a few Druze villages.
In addition, while most West Bank settlers are driven by a religious-nationalist ideology, many Golan settlers are left-leaning. They moved to the Golan either to bolster Israel’s security or to improve their quality of life in 32 small towns peppered throughout the eerie but breathtaking landscape of brown, scorched earth and volcanic rock formations.
“This is like a small city, but we still have the mountain air,” says Leah Ravid, 37. In this year’s elections, Ravid voted for Barak, as did more than 57 percent of Golan electorate. She also voted for the Third Way Party, which campaigned on a single issue — keeping the Golan — and failed to win enough votes to return to the Knesset.
In 1978, Ravid became one of the founding members of Katzrin, and her first marriage was also the first Jewish marriage in the Golan Heights. She later lived in the United States between 1982 and 1994, returning to Katzrin with her second husband, Avishai, to open a small gift shop at the local shopping center.
“I am worried because I do not want to live in Tel Aviv and I do not want to move back to New York,” Leah Ravid says. If the government decides to evacuate the Golan, Ravid may petition or protest, but in the end, will leave peacefully.
Her husband, Avishai, is even more willing to leave for peace with Syria. He also challenges the traditional Israeli security doctrine that deems the Golan — overlooking the kibbutzim along the Sea of Galilee to the west and the Syrian lowlands to the east — to be essential for Israel’s security.
“Israel is no longer a country of heroes and Syria does not need to send soldiers to make war — they can send missiles — so a mile here or there does not matter,” he says. “The secret for security is peace.”
He is also convinced that many Golan residents quietly agree with this position. “Under the table, all everyone is waiting for is compensation,” he says.
Compensation will not help the Golan Heights Winery, the most well-known industry on the Golan. Established in 1983 on the outskirts of Katzrin, the winery now produces 3.6 million bottles a year, and generated revenues of $15 million in 1998, including $3 million in exports. Its labels have won dozens of medals at international wine competitions. The secret to success, says Adam Montefiore, the company’s international marketing manager, is Golan grapes.
“The high altitudes and the soil makes this a unique vineyard area,” says Montefiore. “To leave the Golan would be a disaster for the Israeli wine industry.”
Although the winery steers clear of political campaigning, it does have a message for the policymakers.
“It is up to the politicians to be creative enough to come up with a solution that will allow us to continue,” he says. “You do not need a flag to grow grapes.”
Back in Katzrin, workers at the Golan Residents Committee have just finished toasting the New Year over a couple of bottles of local white wine. In recent years, the organization has led a sporadically vociferous campaign against returning the Golan, and they are gearing up for another battle.
“We have to work on Israeli public opinion to show that returning the Golan would be a total disaster,” says Avi Zeira, outgoing chairman of the group, presenting the traditional Israeli position against trading the Golan for peace with Syria.
It would, he says, endanger Israel’s security to relinquish its strategic foothold overlooking the Syrian frontier while at the same time, Syria remains a sponsor of terrorist groups and does not really seek normalization with Israel.
Zeira also cites monthly polls by Peace Watch, conducted at the Tel Aviv University, which consistently show that less than 30 percent of Israelis currently back a withdrawal for peace.
Nevertheless, Zeira knows it will not be as easy to rally Israelis as it was during the peak of Israeli-Syrian talks in 1995, just before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, when banners proclaiming “the people are with the Golan” flew from balconies across the country.
“Since the assassination, it is much more difficult to get people out into the streets,” he says. “Any protest activity is considered illegitimate.”
Instead, the cash-strapped group is focusing on lobbying policymakers. It is also reviving a fund-raising drive this month in the Diaspora from offices in New York and Los Angeles. Between 1992 and 1996, the committee raised about $1 million a year in the United States, which made up the lion’s share of its budget.
Yigal Kipnis has no budget to get his message out. From his leafy home in Ma’aleh Gamla, a moshav on the western slopes of the Golan overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Kipnis, a farmer by day, has been coordinating a small peace movement of Golan settlers to counter the Residents Board since late 1995.
“Peace with Syria is a vital interest of the State of Israel,” Kipnis says. “I would be very happy if we could make peace without leaving the Golan, but we will accept with understanding an agreement that includes returning the Heights.”
His group does not actively demonstrate, but Kipnis — who first came in 1978 — says that in small meetings he finds more and more residents signing on to his message.
Israel, he says, conquered the Golan for two reasons: to provide a security buffer to the northern settlements from Syrian aggression and to ensure Israel’s water interests. The Golan’s streams are the source of about 30 percent of Israel’s water.
If Israel can achieve these same two goals with a peace treaty, argues Kipnis, then why should the settlements remain?
“This is a Garden of Eden that we have never had, but a treaty with Syria will not be decided by our personal interests,” he says. “The only reason the settlements are here is because Israel believed that peace with Syria was an impossibility. All of Israel’s leaders realize this is no longer true.”
Meanwhile, like other Golan residents, Kipnis is continuing with his daily routine despite the uncertainty. As if hoping against all odds for a future unlikely to arrive, Kipnis has just planted 52 acres of mango trees that will yield fruit in only four years.