After Lebanon War, Israel Looks with Fresh Eyes at Golan Heights

With criticism of the handling of this summer’s war in Lebanon continuing to mount, Israel’s military elite is struggling to deal both with the war’s political fallout and its implications for military strategy. As they ponder the threats to northern Israel, these strategists are thinking not only about Hezbollah, but about the questions this war raises for Israel’s other northern front: Syria.

Specifically, does the rocket-based strategy Hezbollah adopted in the war make the Golan Heights more indispensable than ever in a potential conflict with Syria? Or does the enemy’s reliance on missile technology detract from the importance of territorial buffer zones?

“There are those who claim that because of the long-range weaponry, the importance of the Golan is diminished. It is not annulled, but it is diminished,” said David Hacham, an Arab affairs adviser in Israel’s Defense Ministry. “And there are those — also experts, both sides are experts — who say that the importance of the Golan, as a base of departure for attack, is unparalleled.”

“Personally, I believe the Golan is something that cannot be relinquished,” Hacham said. “Even if there is a war and they use long-range weaponry, and they hit Tiberias and even Tel Aviv, this does not convey the importance of the Golan. Because if you want to launch a counterattack, it is a lot easier to go from the Golan into Syrian territory than if you are in Lebanon.”

Captured from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War, the Golan is widely considered vital to the security of northern Israel. The plateau overlooks most of the country’s North — which southern Lebanon does not — and between 1948 and 1967 Syrian gunners used their perch on the heights to shell the kibbutzim and small towns of the Upper Galilee.

Israel’s conquest of the Golan pushed hostile Syrian forces back behind a United Nations-patrolled cease-fire line, brought valuable water sources under Israeli control and gave Israel a place from which to monitor the Syrians. At its highest point, the Israeli part of the Golan is more than 7,000 feet, with the Syrian capital within view.

The threat of missiles from nearby enemy states is not new to Israelis. Saddam Hussein famously deployed Scud missiles against Israel during the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, to little material effect. But the thousands of Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah during this latest war — and the physical and psychological damage they wreaked — has many Israelis reassessing the state of their security.

Israel Defense Forces officials refused to be interviewed for this story. But a former chief of the military’s Northern Command, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amiram Levin, told JTA that the war in Lebanon had made the Golan more important than ever.

“You have to get faster to the heart of the threat, which in this case would be Damascus,” Levin said. The war, he explained, “strengthens the idea that you have to be in a position where you can inflict significant damage on the threatening state as quickly as possible.”

A former deputy head of the Mossad spy agency, Levin now is an executive at an Israeli security company called Suspect Detection Systems.

Faced with a future in which missiles may be the primary medium of attack, some Israelis say the key to security is not holding onto the Golan but rather ceding it to Syria in exchange for a guarantee of peace.

On Aug. 21, just after the end of the war in Lebanon, Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter announced, “In exchange for peace with Syria, Israel can leave the Golan Heights.”

That assessment elicited outrage from many in Israel.

This week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert weighed in on the matter after Syrian government officials said they were willing to restart talks over the Golan Heights.

“As long as I am prime minister, the Golan will remain forever in our hands because it is an inseparable part of the State of Israel,” Olmert told the fervently Orthodox Israeli newspaper Mishpacha. Israel annexed the Golan in 1981.

Many Israelis are reluctant to part with the Golan not only because of its strategic value, but because it’s home to nearly 20,000 residents and contains precious water resources, valuable agricultural land, Israel’s only ski resort, prized wineries, miles of beautiful hiking trails and scenic vacation villages.

Moreover, the area now has been in Israeli hands for nearly as long as it was controlled by Syria. And as long as Syria represents even a minimal threat to the Jewish state, Israel sees no reason to seek a change in the status quo.

Meanwhile, Syria’s position as an international pariah state and terrorist sponsor keeps the pressure off Israel to cede the Golan. The regime in Damascus still supports Hezbollah, hosts the leadership of Palestinian terrorist groups, ignores demands that it allow inspections of possible weapons of mass destruction programs and is on America’s list of terrorist-sponsoring regimes. It’s also the subject of U.S. sanctions.

That’s why Olmert was able to deride both Syrian President Bashar Assad’s recent calls for peace and his threats of war. In the past month, Syrian officials have simultaneously rattled their war sabers by saying they won’t rely forever on peaceful means to try to recover the Golan, while declaring themselves open for peace talks.

Olmert called Syria’s pronouncements “public relations tricks.”

For now, it appears, Israel has no interest in putting the Golan on the market.

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