There was much reason to hope for peace during the 1990s. Israel was entering final negotiations with the Palestinians. When then-President Hafez al Assad of Syria agreed to resume talks with Israel, there was greater cause for celebration. However, direct talks between Israel and Syria were halted in 2000 when the two sides were not able to agree on Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. While Israel offered to withdraw to the 1923 borders, the Syrians demanded all the land they lost in 1967, thus regaining access to the Sea of Galilee. Months later, following the breakdown of talks with both the Syrians and Palestinians, a violent intifada started which led to the escalation of violence in the region and the hardening of opinions on all sides.
During the Bush administration, the prospect of peace between Israel and Syria was barely mentioned. Although the current administration is making efforts to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, there does not seem to be the same enthusiasm with Syria. It is important to distinguish between the two. The Golan Heights are different than the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Heights do not threaten Israel’s existence as a Jewish democratic state. There are merely four Druze villages in the Golan Heights, whose populations live peacefully. Additionally, Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, while it did not do the same with the West Bank and Gaza. The Druze residents have a choice between obtaining Israeli citizenship and keeping their Syrian one. Although they enjoy rights and freedoms they would not dream of under Syrian rule, most choose to retain their Syrian citizenship, lest the Syrians retaliate against them if the territory were ever to be returned to Syria.
Syria continues to be a state sponsor of terrorism, while severely abusing human rights. While the Golan Heights was under Syrian control, Israeli communities in the Galilee were the targets of frequent shootings. Since the capture of the heights, Israeli communities have continued to thrive in the Golan Heights. It would be unrealistic and unfair to ask Israel to return the Golan Height to undemocratic Syria. Israelis would not support uprooting their own Jewish citizens from the Golan Heights, as that could potentially incite a civil war. Although it is unlikely to happen any time soon, the world should accept the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. This would send a strong message to Syria that terrorism is unacceptable. It would also give the Druze residents the reassurance that they can become full Israeli citizens and enjoy the benefits of freedom and democracy, without fearing that their villages would return to Syrian rule. Peace between Israel and Syria should be based on mutual desire for it, not for Syrian appetite for land.
Given the current circumstances, the Obama administration should not aggressively initiate peace talks between Israel and Syria. Although the achievement of peace is always a noble goal, it should not come at others’ expense. Indeed, sometimes peace between two nations can result in calamity for others. An example of this is Mauritania, an Arab state that was criticized by the U.S. State Department several times in the past for having slaves. In the 1990s, when pressure was mounting on the country to put a stop to this practice, the state decided to join the peace process with Israel. This prompted the U.S. government to overlook the slavery issue. So this peace agreement, while making the United States, Israel and Mauritania happy, excluded the slaves. Peace should be based on mutual respect and human rights, at no one’s expense.
A peace agreement in which Israel would be forced to return the Golan Heights to Syria is another example of the wrong kind of peace. It would require forcing Jews from their homes, putting Druze villages under Syrian control as opposed to leaving them under Israeli democracy, giving a tyrannical state more territory thus overlooking its support for terrorism and putting the Israeli residents of the Galilee under danger. Given, that there is no way Syria will be willing to accept an agreement without having full control of the heights, the United States should concentrate on other global matters and stay out of a peace process that is doomed to fail.