This upcoming peace conference in Annapolis has been widely talked down as yet another lackluster effort on the part of successive American administrations to make progress in solving a conflict that has little promise for resolution. Indeed, the front page of today’s Yediot Aharonot calls Annapolis the “Summit of Low Expectations.” (See also David Samuels’ piece today in the Jewish Press.)
But one should be wary of low expectations. Syria just announced its intention to participate in the conference, having held out for assurances that the fate of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 war, would be on the table. This comes in the wake of reports that the U.S. gave Syria such assurances, and just hours after Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni conceded that indeed Syria would be allowed to raise the issue.
Unlike the West Bank—which Palestinians have long claimed for their homeland; which the Israeli government considers occupied territory; and the fate of which has deeply divided Israeli public opinion since they were captured by Israel in 1967—the Golan Heights has long been a matter of consensus among Israelis. In 1981 Israel effectively annexed it, extending civilian rule into the territory—which it did not do with the West Bank and Gaza, but which it did do with eastern Jerusalem, its “undivided, eternal capital.” Today Jewish residents in the Golan outnumber Muslims by about eight to one. (In addition, about 19,000 Druze live there, the great majority of whom support Israeli rule.) This is also a crucial strategic plateau, and it is thus no wonder that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin famously declared withdrawal from the Golan to be “unthinkable.”
Yet in recent years, thinking the unthinkable has become a kind of national compulsion, a nervous tic. In 1994, Israel readily handed over 300 square kilometers of pre-1967 real estate to Jordan under the terms of their peace treaty. In 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to divide Jerusalem, Israel’s capital city and the Jews’ historic spiritual center. More recently there has been talk of a “land exchange” with the Palestinians, in which the Palestinian state would include parts of pre-1967 Israel, to make up for unremoved settlement blocs. And now the Golan.
The shift here is not just a matter of geography. It used to be that people in favor of giving up the West Bank and Gaza were completely adamant when it came to the pre-1967 borders. The debate, in other words, began with the assumption that there was some sovereign place called Israel, which could never be abandoned, and the disagreement was over what exactly that included. Yet the idea of sovereign land has taken a huge beating in the Israeli public mind, and today it seems that any parcel of the historic land of Israel, given the right circumstances, can be parted with.
This is bad news—and not just because it gives Israel’s enemies an incentive to keep up their ever-increasing demands. It is bad news because the foundation of Zionism was the return of Jews to their homeland, and the establishment of sovereignty, as understood by the nations of the world, in it. (Think of Britain’s willingness to go to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, one of the more remote places in the Empire.) In raising hopes for concessions in places that Israel considers sovereign territory, the Jewish state’s politicians are softening this idea beyond recognition, giving up on the long-recognized right of nations to preserve their physical bodies. This is not what Ben-Gurion bargained for.