Commentary Magazine


Backroom Dealing on the Golan

Whether the back-channel “Israeli-Syrian negotiations” whose existence was revealed last week (and expanded upon Sunday) by the Hebrew daily Haaretz were, in fact, as claimed by the newspaper, really government-level talks, or whether they were simply an exchange between two private individuals, ex-director general of Israel’s foreign ministry Alon Liel and Washington-based Syrian businessman Ibrahim Suleiman, is largely an artificial question. Both governments knew of the talks, which reportedly involved an offer on Liel’s part for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights to the pre-Six Day war lines of June 4, 1967, and both, even if they took no active role in them, could have put a stop to them had they wanted to. They didn’t. Governments that encourage such unofficial mediation are not necessarily committed to its results, but neither are they uninterested in them.

That a government of Israel would consider, as several Israeli governments have done, a withdrawal from the entire Golan in return for a peace agreement with Syria that may or may not be honored in the long run is all but incomprehensible. That an Israeli government would consider withdrawing to the lines of June 4, 1967, at which time the Syrian army was illegally occupying several dozen square kilometers of territory along the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River that were officially part of Israel, is wholly incomprehensible.

There are many excellent reasons why Israel should never cede the whole Golan to Syria—military factors, water rights, tourism, national pride, the untrustworthiness of Syrian intentions, the unpredictability of Syrian politics, and the Golan’s having been officially annexed by Israel in 1982, thus making it as much a part of the country as is Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. But of all possible reasons, none is so logically absurd to overlook as the fact that, by repeatedly demanding an Israeli withdrawal to the June 4 lines, Syria has also repeatedly repudiated the 1923 border between it and Palestine drawn by the then-occupying colonial powers of France and England—the only Israeli-Syrian frontier ever recognized by international law. That a succession of Israeli governments has nevertheless continued to regard this border as a starting point for negotiations with Syria instead of trumpeting Syria’s own, repeated repudiation of it is, to my mind, one of the greatest stupidities of Israeli diplomacy.