On the heels of my last post about Israeli-Syrian negotiations comes Michael Oren’s op-ed in the January 24 New York Times, “What if Israel and Syria Find Common Ground?” In this opinion piece, Oren—author of the best-selling Six Days of War (reviewed in COMMENTARY by Victor Davis Hanson) and the new Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present (reviewed in January’s COMMENTARY by me)—recommends that Israel make peace with Syria even if this means “forfeiting the Golan Heights” and initiating “a clash between Israel and Washington.”
Frankly, Oren, who has always been something of a hawk when it comes to Israeli-Arab relations, startles me. The surprise lies not so much in his readiness for Israel to “clash” with Washington, even though this is nothing to be made light of. Rather, it lies in his endorsing the argument that it is worth giving in to Syrian demands on the Golan because, as he put it in the Times, this would “invariably provide for the cessation of Syrian aid to Hamas and Hizballah.” More “crucial still,” he writes, “by detaching Syria from Iran’s orbit,” such a concession would enable Israel to “address the Iranian nuclear threat—perhaps by military means—without fear of retribution from Syrian ground forces and missiles.”
Let’s assume for the moment that Oren is right and that Syria can be bribed into ditching Hizballah, Iran, and Hamas by giving it back the Golan. Does this mean that the Israeli air force can then attack Iran’s nuclear installations with impunity? Hardly. Even if Israel does not have to worry about Syrian missiles and ground forces, it will still have to worry about Hizballah and Iranian missiles, as well as about the possible failure of its air attack, not to mention strongly condemnatory international reaction. And what if the United States attacks Iran first, in which case Syria would be highly unlikely to get involved even without the gift of the Golan? And how does Oren know how Syria will behave once it has the Golan back and is sitting on the Sea of Galilee and the cliffs overlooking northern Israel, or what unexpected political developments in Syria (or elsewhere in the Middle East) may take place five or ten years from now, or how the message that Israel is ready to cede territory for short-term gains will be interpreted by the Palestinians and the Arab world?
Land is an unchanging asset; it never loses its value. Political developments are contingent and unpredictable. To give up the unchanging for the contingent and the certain for the unpredictable is never a good idea, quite apart from the strong historical, legal, and moral claim that Israel has on the Golan. It’s not fear of clashing with Washington that should keep it from surrendering the Heights, but fear of compromising its own most vital interests.