What the Golan Heights Can Teach Us About Peace for Israel
Israeli wine has taken the world by storm. And some of the very best comes from the Golan Heights.
Similarly, the Gaza Strip during the pre-Islamic era, when it was still mostly populated by Jews, produced wines to compete with the finest in the Byzantine Empire. But where is Gaza today? Sadly, it has become a place of squalor, unemployment, and a haven for terrorists, while the Golan has transformed into a place of life and productivity.
Across the Arab world, it is widely believed that former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad secretly bartered the Golan Heights to Israel in the years following the 1973 Yom Kippur War (in which Syria briefly recaptured parts of the strategic plateau), either in exchange for a large sum of money, or for Israel’s assistance in keeping the Assad regime in power.
This alleged exchange was the subject of a recent Al Jazeera documentary, as it has been — over the past several decades — of numerous reports and surveys that cite Syrian officers who served in the 1967 and 1973 wars and were privy to Assad’s decisions.
Nor does the idea of such a covert deal come as much of a surprise to most in the Middle East, considering that the ruling Assad family belongs to Syria’s tiny Alawite minority, and being able to point to an external threat like the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights helped them maintain control over the country’s Sunni majority.
Known in ancient times as the Bashan region (see Deuteronomy 43:4 and Joshua 20:8), the Golan is a relatively small, but very strategic bit of real estate. Recognizing its importance to any future Jewish settlement, Baron Edmond de Rothschild in 1894 purchased a large plot of land in the Golan. Other wealthy Jews from the US, Russia, Canada, and Europe similarly bought up portions of the Golan. Such land sales were prohibited by the Ottoman authorities of the time, but, just as today, money has the final word.
After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, Syria and the Golan fell under the French Mandate. Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Syria built fortifications in the western Golan Heights overlooking the Sea of Galilee, but did little else to develop the region.
In the final days of the Six-Day War in 1967, after having defeated Egypt and Jordan, Israel turned its attention to Syria, and the IDF began advancing up the steep slopes of the Golan. The Syrians fled and Israel put the Golan under military administration, but it had no intention of treating the plateau as anything but a big army base, as the Syrians had done. But in the decade following the war, no fewer than 30 Jewish settlements were established in the Golan Heights, transforming it into an agricultural and industrial success story.
With the unilateral annexation and introduction of Israeli civil law in 1981, the Golan further flourished.
In the subsequent decades, there have been several attempts to negotiate an Israeli surrender of the Golan in exchange for peace with Syria. But they have all come to naught (perhaps, as noted above, because the Assad regime didn’t really want to regain the Golan). And that’s probably for the best. Because not only has this border been far quieter with the Golan under Israeli rule, but most of the Muslims and Druze living there have quietly confirmed to regional media outlets over the years that they prefer to remain part of the Jewish state.
A version of this article appeared in Israel Today magazine.