Zenobia Baalbaki | Doctoral candidate United States
May 21st, 2007

Re: ‘Syria's Occupied Golan Heights

I have been asked to write about the reasons why Israel should engage in negotiations with Syria, which would result in the return of the Golan Heights to Syria. In thinking about this subject what came to mind was an article written a few months ago by Giora Eiland for the journal Strategic Assessment that was republished on the Syria Comment website. This article was a shrewd and cynical analysis of all the reasons that Israel should absolutely not engage in peace agreements that would return the Golan Heights. As I read this article, I had a strong negative reaction to many of the assumptions embedded in the analysis that I believe are part of a deeply flawed general mentality concerning relations between Syria and Israel. In fact, my criticism of Eiland’s piece is not based on any mistakes in the particular points in the strategic assessment, but rather it is based on a critique of the choice of using strategic thinking and rationales in the first place to answer the question of what Israel should do about the Golan. I would posit that these strategic descriptions of the relations between the two states are a large part of the problem itself, and that, in fact, determining what both countries should be striving for requires different premises and the privileging of humanistic modes of valuation rather than military ones.

It is through my own response to Eiland’s article that I would like to suggest from where we should derive a counter argument to the Israelis of like mind to Giora Eiland. For the sake of clarity, I will first outline what are the main focus points and notions presented in Eiland’s article, and then I will address why I think this perspective is problematic and why it creates a misguided basis for answering the question of what is in Israel’s best interest regarding the Golan.

Eiland begins the article by asserting that peace agreements with Syria are more likely to lead to war than to a stable peace. The entire body of the article is his evidence for this provocative assertion. The first section outlines four major problems that Israel confronts that cannot be solved by peace negotiations with Syria. These are in sum: that peace agreements will not get rid of the threat of Iran, they will not solve the problem of the Palestinians, they will not resolve the Israeli problems with Lebanon, and finally, they will not solve the larger Arab-Israeli conflict.
It is possible that these statements could prove to be true. But where I take exception is with the conclusion Eiland is drawing that, therefore, negotiating with Syria is a waste of time. Apparently, Eiland assumes, unfairly I would say, that a peace with Syria should be expected to be able to generally impact all these gigantic problems, and if it cannot, then it cannot be deemed valuable in itself or as a stepping stone towards addressing these other problems.

Eiland presents four more arguments as reasons to reject peace agreements with Syria as follows: that such agreements would require challenging American foreign policy; that there is an inability to ensure that treaties with the Alawi dominated government will be honored by a successor government or different ruling party, and therefore treaties will unlikely to be lasting; that peace agreements requiring giving up the Golan – necessarily erode deterrence factors and the strategic military advantages (currently held by Israel) in capability; and finally, (but to my mind most shockingly) that relinquishing the Golan takes away part of the “Ethos” belonging to Israel.

Eiland places his emphasis on the security issues and the immense strategic advantages that Israel would be giving up if it were to relinquish the Golan to Syria. My own initial response will therefore focus on this aspect too. It seems that the points that Eiland details are likely correct. For example, indeed, it is highly unlikely that Syria would completely demilitarize the Golan Heights once it took control over the area, and that even if the government agreed to that there may be some militarized elements present. (However, it begs to be pointed out that nobody would ever expect or demand that Israel would demilitarize its own border zone.) It is also true that as a result of relinquishing the Golan in the case of a renewed conflict, Israel would be forced to lead its offensive or defend itself from its own territory rather than beginning from its favorite position of remaining constantly over its own border and occupying its neighbors land as a deterrent. As well, under Syrian control, the Golan would likely become populated with more Syrian people, naturally, and therefore if Israel chose to attempt to reoccupy the territory, it would be a much bigger challenge and a potential human catastrophe.

Again, none of these suggestions by Eiland are wrong. However, they do presume a lot of realities that I would like to highlight and question. The largest of these presumptions is that Israel must remain utterly prepared at all times to go to war and do so from an offensive position. This idea is based, in this case, on an assumption that Syria and the Syrian people are interested primarily in attacking Israel at the first opportunity. The belief seems to be held as if the Syrian sentiment had no rational motivation that relates to Israel’s own actions and policies. Eiland gives no concession at all to the possibility that the giant risk he maintains Israel would be making in giving up the Golan might be diminished by the action of this giving back of the territory. He speaks only of the resulting military imbalance (what is a rebalancing actually) but not of the change in political reality that would potentially have a much greater impact on the danger level facing Israel. Why should Israelis be unable to imagine that the Syrians would be motivated in a much more positive way toward Israel and be in the mood for peace as a result of the return of the Golan? This possibility is entirely absent from Eiland’s equations.

Of course, Eiland’s argument is a pure cost-benefit analysis, a strategic one, based only on an assessment of geography and movement of troops, and the relative positions of military control and placement of forces such that there is the ability to threaten Damascus. But to hold up this type of assessment as the basis for concluding whether it is wise or unwise to give up the Golan simply ignores all the non- strategic factors affecting the outcome of such a political action. It ignores all other valuations of what is gained and lost by such a decision.

In addition, such thinking furthers the dilemma of the paranoid approach to measuring safety, that is, that what we as individuals or as nations project into the world as our fears and threats ironically, we end up creating. In essence, the longer Israel approaches Syria as enemy and attacker, Syria will be that. The longer there is no respect or trust afforded the other, the longer the other has no chance to decide to be trustworthy. The longer Israel holds the Golan as a tangible symbol of this mistrust and disrespect, there will be no space or opportunity for some other dynamic to evolve and replace what has been. And of course, this works in reverse for how Syria perceives and contributes to what Israel has become in relation to Syria. The risk that Eiland so strongly warns against is, in fact, totally necessary for anything new in this arena to become possible.

Let me move to another point that comes to mind for me after reading George Ajjan’s essay. George brings up the issue of what Syria needs in order to attain normalcy and a return of dignity such that peace can be maintained. The return of the Golan is held as a key factor in attaining this peace of mind for Syrians. George rightly argues that without this attainment, there will always remain a discontentment and hence a threat by Syria to Israel. He reminds his imaginary Israeli audience that this unaddressed situation will mean the continuation of Israeli sons having the necessity of serving as soldiers.

George is, of course, correct about all this. But the appeal still leaves me with the ill at ease feeling that to Israelis with the logic of Giora Eiland or of the general “Might Makes Right” mindset, this appeal simply will not be compelling. The reason is that one can always argue that military power and enough deterrence can keep the Syrians in check. There is no need to be concerned with the needs of the Syrian people or their dissatisfactions or dignity. The “or else” equation only works on those who feel weak, and the Israelis, thus far, have gone on feeling that they can be endlessly strong. Who knows when their convictions will change. My guess is that it would be a long wait. And if it did change by counter- aggression, one has only succeeded in humiliating another set of people and restarting a cycle of revenge.

One might make a humanitarian appeal to the Israelis, an ethical one of justice for justice’s sake. The return of the Golan is an ethically sound and just act. But it is not clear that this appeal can be persuasive when so many Israelis still feel justified in their possession and control of land. Unfortunately, justice is judged so often in the eye of the beholder, as they say. Moreover, justice seems to always lose out as a source of motivation if acting on it is judged to be in conflict with one’s own needs. Camille-Alexandre Otrakji has suggested that this self-justified sentiment is born out of greed. Perhaps it is greed at the heart of the matter, however, for the sake of peacemaking, it is probably better to assume that Israelis do not have some special greed chromosome and that they have pretty much the same level of greed as the rest of the human race.

But, there is a most important point here that leads me in the direction I would finally like to move in my own appeal to my imaginary Israeli holding tightly to the Golan Heights. Without waxing too philosophical here, I would concede that, certainly, greed is an intrinsic human motivation, a flaw if you will, and one of our seven deadly sins. However, greed is only in the forefront of human motivation when we have no sense of empathy for the other. Unfortunately, empathy disappears the moment humans feel threatened by and alienated from one another, and once this occurs, it is extremely difficult for empathy to remerge. It can only remerge in the face of a renewed recognition of ‘the other’ as being connected to one’s self and of our sameness, rather than difference and otherness. The reemergence of empathy seems to me the key ingredient of possible peace.

I want to argue that ultimately, the appeal that makes sense to me about why Israelis should care about the needs of the Syrian people and of the nation Syria for dignity, wholeness, security and satisfaction is not one born out of an expected generosity prevailing over greed, or one of fear of the Syrian threat. No, on the contrary, I would make this humanistic appeal based on the supposition that in reality these two people’s fortunes and interests at bottom lie together. I would like to suggest that their ships are tied together, and their benefits and interests rely on mutual gain and thriving as two brotherly people. This may seem like a shocking idea to some Israelis and Syrians who are married to their hatreds or to their deep beliefs in their attributional human differences.

The presumptions of Giora Eiland’s article are devoid of any recognition that these two peoples might actually be dependent on one another. There is no awareness that the ever divisive ‘us verse them’ mentality , the pure strategic planning against an ‘other’, in which one’s own interest is presumed to have absolutely nothing in common with the other – even if that other is one’s geographic, cultural, and historical, and above all environmental neighbor – is utterly self-destructive. Does Eiland really believe that Israel lives in such an impenetrable bubble? This false belief is the most dangerous in a long-run picture of certain global and environmental interdependence. It is far more dangerous than any “strategically vulnerable” position that Israel can believe itself to be in. For both Syria and Israel the exercise of trust forged around the agreement of a return of the Golan is a step in the right direction of bursting this fictitious bubble of independence.

And finally here, I will mention the outrageous comments by Eiland about the Golan being a part of the “ethos” of Israel, a statement that seems so bizarre that I wasn’t sure I even understood what the writer was suggesting. I am still unclear, actually, about the meaning of the statement that with the return of the Golan, Israel would be subjecting itself to a future of concrete walls, although I am guessing that he meant that this is what the Golan would become under Syria’s care and what the border area in Israel would have to become.

My main retort is that it totally astounds me that Eiland so narrow mindedly does not even allow himself the thought that, perhaps, water, air, open spaces, views, agriculture, preserved history, and land with something other than concrete on it – are not actually unique aspects of Israeli culture, but rather, amazingly(!) they are aspects of universal human need including Syrian’s needs. Could Eiland imagine that Syrians might dream of, if not require these satisfactions and joys as well, that their needs are the same as Israelis? If he and other Israelis could imagine this, then it is the beginning of empathy and the possibility of acting justly.

No doubt, the fear of scarcity throughout the Middle- East fosters greed and a convenient denial of what is in fact a deep connectedness and dependence between all its people. However, recognition leads the way to acceptance of commonality of needs and the possibility of generosity. Eiland asks of Israelis – from the start: “What do we want?” I should hope that what Israel wants ultimately is to come out of her self-made cage and to be a true part of the whole of the lands that she claims to be born from.

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11 Responses to the Article

Mr. Israeli Says:

I believe this is one of the best commentaries I have ever read concerning the complexities of the Syrian-Israeli conflict and which, I believe, relate almost identically to the remaining Arab-Israeli conflicts as well. There is no doubt that without the ability to feel any sense of empathy towards one another, our innate distrust will continue to hinder any possibility of peace. Unfortunately, describing the problem all too often does little to actually solving it. What is needed more than ever are creative and practical proposals for bringing about a change in the way we perceive one another. Aside from various and usually miniature (although welcomed) initiatives, I would suggest that the quickest way may be in finding the right approach to the leaders themselves (Olmert and Assad) in convincing both that dramatic confidence-building actions must take place. I should say that such actions do not include dismembering Hamas offices in Damascus, or yet another Israeli pre-election announcement that it is willing to make “painful concessions” in return for peace. But rather, something like a surprise visit by Assad to Jerusalem (as hard as it may be for him, with all the risks involved back home) or at the very least a public invitation by Assad for Olmert to come to Damascus to reignite high-level talks. Such steps will, in my mind and in the minds of many a friends and colleagues here in Israel, undoubtedly cause an “earthquake of emotions” amongst Israelis (and I believe Syrians as well), which will almost in an instant, force us to look deeper in, and find that realm called empathy.

Itamar Says:

What Eiland meant in “concrete walls” is that Israel will be forced into a position of pure static defense, will lose all initiative and will be forced to build houses from concrete near the Golan to counter possible mortar fire and bombings from the (returned) heights – which is what made us take the Golan in the first place. Or have you forgotten the constant unprovoked unrelenting mortar fire rained on Israeli settlements from the Golan Heights when they were in possession of Syria?

Incidentally, I agree with everything you’ve written. But you still lack the most basic requirement for making true peace ?? recognizing one’s own part in the situation and taking responsibility.

How will the Syrians guarantee to Israelis that returning the Golan will not worsen our security situation? So far, Syria’s leaders refuse to comment on the future of a settlement. If they would only say “Give us the Golan and we will have fully normal relations” that would do the trick. But they don??t. Instead they harbor a score of organizations that attack Israel daily, and provoke Hizzbula to harass our northern borders for political reasons even though we unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon. This is not how a peace loving nation acts. We just ?? don??t ?? believe ?? the ?? Syrians ?? are – serious. What’s do difficult to understand in that?

Israel, with all of its so-called aggression, never plays a double game. When our soldiers occupy a territory we take responsibility for our rights and wrongs. Syria, on the other hand, plays games. This is why we do not trust the regime, and don’t believe that giving back the Golan will bear the fruits of peace.

You know, sometimes it is very easy to over complicate things with explanations and theories. But the truth (and the solution) is very simple: Syria can have peace tomorrow (and get the Golan back) if it so chooses. But no one here believes the Syrians because every time we tried to negotiate it blew up in our face.

george_ajjan Says:

I think these are 2 excellent comments that can teach Syrians a lot about the Israeli perspective.

I recall sitting in a pub in London with an Israeli colleague, a Likud member, saying that the day that Israelis are convinced that the Arabs no longer wish to “throw them into the sea”, they will gladly give back the land.

He said that his parents were quite right-wing, but the day that Sadat went to Israel to address the Knesset, his mother began to cry from her happiness and his father opened a bottle of champagne.

Matan Says:

Something I repeatedly see in Arab Israeli dialogues in general is that Israelis always dwell on the historic circumstances leading to the present conditions, while Arabs either discuss the present as a given, or, if less inclined to dialogue, create “alternative history.” I am glad, by the way, to see the case for the former from Arabs speaking here.
Both perspectives are valid insofar as they are accurate to a large degree. I would propose, for the sake of discussion, that speakers from both parties reverse the roles. Let Syrians discuss their vision of a future that will not repeat the past, and let Israelis discuss their offers to fulfill those needs for dignity and fairness the Syrians (and, I believe the rest of the participants in the conflict,) require.

Alex Says:

Zenobia,

My father wanted you to know that he found your piece here to be exceptional. Easily his favorite from all the other articles on this forum so far.

lirun Says:

wow.. very impressed indeed..

how delicate a balance it is to learn from history without being bound by it and doomed to repeat its mistakes out of fear..

a message of caution to all of us.. perhaps also a message of hope..

Zenobia Says:

Dear Mr. Israeli,
thanks for your feedback and compliment. I couldn’t agree more with you that indeed concrete steps that move towards solution are needed. We begin with ideas and theories about what will make a difference, but only experiences that are new can change how people feel and their beliefs.
I think you are correct that some risk taking in the area of visits between the key leaders would go a long way towards these first steps, and probably “earthquakes of emotion” are needed in order to shatter such stalemates as we are currently burdened with.
I don’t think diplomatic visits have to have unrealistic goals at first – but even as gestures of good faith – they have the possibility of breaking down some of the hardened crust of mistrust and prejudice.

Zenobia Says:

Itimar,
thanks for your comment overall and your clarification for me of what Eiland was specifically referring to about ‘concrete walls’ that would be the result for Israeli returning the Golan.
First off, let me say, I agree with you completely that all parties in all conflict have to own their own aggression and their own offenses.. And I don’t think that Syrians have been peacefull in the past towards Israel (obviously) or Israelis are the only ones with aggression. Certainly not.
However, I do feel that to begin to make amends on either side, it doesn’t make sense to get into arguments about who was worse, who commited more violence, or was more greedy, or violated the laws, or who “plays games” to a higher degree.
No matter what my true view is, I believe that a beginning starts with gestures of good faith… that communicate that we are going to believe (even if it is difficult) that the ‘other’ is capable of something new and better.
I don’t think anything can move anywhere…if either side begins with a set of very negative suppositions… such as that Syrian leaders are untrustworthy and only capable of being deceitful and gamey. Or conversely, that the Israelis have no right to anything because their country is all a “big mistake”.
I am exaggerating these statements to make a point. I think we have to let go of all this garbage – even if we believed it at somepoint.
Maybe….we could accept a different narrative.. decide to make one, just for the satisfaction of knowing that human kind could could could possibly.. be…. magnanimous.
“Syrians are incredibly loyal and trustworthy, and they want the best for the Israeli people.”
“Israelis are a generous people who want to share their successes and aptitudes and resources with their neighbors.”

To me, such imaginings are the only way to project ourselves intoss different outcomes.

And finally, obviously, i am more of an optimist than Eiland. I do think that there could be something more than concrete on either side of the border because Syrians don’t want concrete either.

How do we know who is ‘serious’… there are no guarentees…as you are asking for.
Both sides have to take a risk… and continue to take a risk. It is not just about weaponry….(I mean Israel has had the upper hand in that area for a long time).
More importantly, it is the risk of giving up your assumptions and beliefs about who the other is.

Zenobia Says:

Thanks for the other observations from Matan and Iirun. to the latter, yes, i think hope is imperative. And history a mixed blessing of how we use it. I would prefer we are not a slave to it, for human history has been pretty bloody.. and painful after all. i should like to think we are capable of better…evolution anyone?

AHMAD AMER Says:

Hello zenobia, I think the question should be( IS ISRAEL INTERESTED IN PEACE WITH THE NEIGHBORING COUNTRIES)

SyriaComment - Syrian politics, history, and religion » Archives » Introducing the Creative Forum: Commemorating the Golan Heights Says:

[…] Baalbaki (doctoral candidate, psychology) analyzed the mentality of Israelis who want their country to retain the […]

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