Middle East

Israelis Philosophical About Golan's Future

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The Golan Heights was occupied by Israel in 1967. But in the aftermath of the war in Lebanon, some politicians are wondering whether it is time to return the area to Syria as part of a peace deal. The two sides came close to an agreement in 1993, and again in 1999.


The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah reminded many Israelis that they live in a hostile neighborhood. Making peace with Syria, the country that sponsors Hezbollah, would be a step toward making it less hostile. Previous efforts to promote a settlement have failed, and now some Israeli politicians are wondering aloud if Israel should try again. Any agreement, though, would mean returning the Golan Heights to Syria.

NPR's Michael Sullivan reports.

(Soundbite of tourist information recording at Bental Lookout)

Unidentified Woman: Shalom, and welcome to the Bental Lookout.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Nearly forty years ago, this part of the Golan was a battlefield. Today it's a tourist destination.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Woman: In front of you is the Kinetra Valley, full of orchards and vineyards.

SULLIVAN: Come here at night and you can see the lights from the Syrian capital, Damascus, about 30 miles to the northeast. In the opposite direction, the Sea of Galilee and the Israeli town of Tiberius, and to the north, Kiryat Shemona, a frequent target of Hezbollah rockets launched from southern Lebanon during this summer's war.

Mr. KOBE MARONE(ph) (Former Israeli Army Commander): In my professional point of view, I think that the Golan Heights gives us a very important strategy depth(ph) to defend the upper Galilee Region and the central part of Israel.

SULLIVAN: Former brigade commander Kobe Marone spent 25 years in the Israeli army. As a military man, he understands the reason for keeping the Golan, and for giving it back.

Mr. MARONE: If we want to have a real quiet border in our northern part, Syria has to be part of the game. If you want to stop the support that Syria gives to the Hezbollah, the only option is to start negotiating.

SULLIVAN: Israel and Syria have come close to a deal twice before, and some Israelis find the idea of trying again, so soon after the war with Hezbollah, a little hard to swallow.

(Soundbite of a bell)

SULLIVAN: The Odem Mountain Winery is one of many that have sprouted up on the Golan in recent years. It's just a few miles from the Bental lookout, on land that would go back to Syria under any deal.

Six huge steel tanks line one wall, some venting carbon dioxide from next year's Chardonnay. Twenty-six-year-old Yishai Alfasi and his brother handle the day-to-day operations in this family-run business. The winery is just a few years old, but Alfasi says it's already produced several award-winning wines.

Mr. YISHAI ALFASI (Owner, Odem Mountain Winery): This is the second year that we're producing Chardonnay. The first one was a very big success, very fruity, and a great Israeli summer drink.

SULLIVAN: Alfasi's parents came to the Golan about 30 years ago, answering the government's call to settle the land just won from Syria. The idea of giving it back, of leaving, he says, is painful but perhaps necessary in the long run.

Mr. ALFASI: It's not okay. But if we withdraw from the Golan and it will give a very good peace, like you can see in other parts of the world, maybe it would be right for us.

SULLIVAN: His friend, Leor Schalef(ph), couldn't disagree more. The sight of the settlers in Gaza being torn from their homes last year during Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, brought tears to his eyes, Schalef says. He has also lived on the Golan since he was born, and if the government ever gave it up, Schalef says, he wouldn't leave without a fight.

Mr. LEOR SCHALEF (Golan Heights Resident): I've been traveling around the whole world. There's no such place as the Golan. It's beautiful. It's quiet. Everything here is perfect. There's nothing that can ruin it.

SULLIVAN: And if for some reason the Israeli government actually gave up the Golan, what would you do?

Mr. SCHALEF: I would find it hard to live in a country that gave back my home.

SULLIVAN: Giving up the Golan would be harder than giving up Gaza, Schalef says, especially now, after the war with Hezbollah. And the persistent, though intermittent, homemade rocket attacks from Gaza on southern Israel - attacks that proved to some that the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza has brought Israel nothing.

The former career soldier and brigade commander Kobe Marone is sympathetic to that argument. And why wouldn't he be. Just a few months ago, he opened this up market restaurant and bar on the Golan with a magnificent view over the Hula Valley below. But Marone says he would give it all up, if necessary, for peace - though he isn't happy about the idea.

Mr. MARONE: No, I'm not. But in our situation in the Middle East, the vision has to be a national view. So I understand the personal price that me and my family and my friends maybe one day has to pay for this.

SULLIVAN: Michael Sullivan, NPR News.


The price for peace is hard to calculate. The cost for a victory celebration for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has already been established. The New York Times reports Congress voted to allocate 20 million dollars for a commemoration of success in the nation's capital, one item in a 2006 military spending bill. They haven't spent the money yet. Those dollars roll over to 2007.

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