Can Albright scale Golan Heights? Israeli-occupied area may be key to wider peace in region


MAJDAL SHAMS, Israeli-occupied Golan Heights -- In the houses of this Druse village on the slopes of Mount Hermon, portraits of Syrian President Hafez el Assad are displayed alongside photographs of a beloved grandfather or a newly wed son.

Decals shaped like the hearty apples that grow plentifully here reflect the loyalties of 17,000 Druse living here -- and they don't lie with Israel, which captured the mountainous range on the Syrian border during the 1967 war.

"Golan Heights Is An Integral Part of Syria," read the decals bearing the colors of the Syrian flag.

The Druse, a sect that broke away from mainstream Islam in the 11th century, are scattered mostly in Syria, Lebanon and Israel. They bear allegiance to the political leadership of whatever country they inhabit. Some Druse, for example, serve in the Israeli military.

But many of the Golan Druse have families still living in Syria, and anti-Israeli sentiments flare among them occasionally. The Aug. 24 arrest of a Druse woman on suspicions she was a Syrian spy provoked angry protests in the usually placid farming villages of the north. The demonstrations underscored Druse resentment of the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights and their desire to have it returned to Syria.

"Israel has peace with Jordan, Egypt and somewhat with the Palestinians," said Radwa Shalan, a medical student who lives in the Druse village of Ein Qinya. "But that is not a real peace. If there's a real peace, it has to be with Syria. And Syria won't compromise on the Golan."

This is the political reality of Syrian-Israeli relations that confronts U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright as she visits the region this week. It is the same reality that confounded her predecessor, Warren Christopher, who made repeated trips to Damascus, the Syrian capital, to restart talks between the two countries that halted last year.

Yitzhak Rabin, the slain Israeli prime minister who signed the historic Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians, was willing to return parts of the Golan to Syria in exchange for peace on Israel's northern border with Lebanon. Syria maintains 30,000 troops in Lebanon and exercises some control over the militant Islamic guerrillas that are fighting against Israel's occupation of Southern Lebanon.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected Assad's demand to return the Golan in exchange for peace. He has repeatedly voiced his desire to negotiate with Syria, but he maintains that the Golan is essential to Israel's security and its water supply. A principal source of the Jordan River springs from the foot of the Golan's Mount Hermon. It feeds into the Sea of Galilee, which provides a third of Israel's water.

Meanwhile, the more than 16,000 Jewish residents of the Golan have waged their own campaign to ensure that the volcanic plateau, which Jerusalem effectively annexed in 1981, remains a part of Israel.

"The Golan is essential for the state of Israel in regards to security and keeping the water sources of Israel," said Avi Zeira, a spokesman for the Golan Residents Committee. "We also are living here for the past 30 years. We have 32 communities, 17,000 Jews. We want it to be taken into account in any future arrangement."

Their campaign over the years has reached Israelis throughout the country who, when polled, support retaining the Golan Heights as part of Israel. Bumper stickers with the slogan "The Golan Is Us" appear on cars from Haifa to Jerusalem.

But Syria's Assad wants Israel to withdraw to the borders that predate the 1967 war, the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and it accuses the Netanyahu government of reneging on commitments made by its predecessors, the governments of Rabin and Shimon Peres.

The Rabin-Peres governments had reasoned that a deal with Assad on the Golan would end Israel's thorny southern Lebanon problem. The deaths of 12 Israeli commandos in a failed raid there last week have revived calls within Israel for a withdrawal from its 9-mile-wide security zone in Southern Lebanon. "It's a delusion to think that you can get out of there without consulting Syria," Israel President Ezer Weizman said last week.

But some politicians and political observers are questioning whether Israel should rely on Syria to end Israel's 12-year presence in Lebanon.

"The concept of our presence in Lebanon, which was justified in its time, has lost its raison d'etre. Whoever makes our exit from Lebanon dependent on a peace treaty with Syria is turning us into bloody pawns," columnist Yoel Marcus wrote in the newspaper Ha'aretz. "We must rethink our view of the Lebanese problems with an eye toward a speedy exit. Because there is no solution on the horizon -- other than to get out."

Both Yossi Beilin, the dovish former Cabinet minister in the Peres government, and hawk Ariel Sharon, the retired general who was the architect of Israel's invasion of Lebanon 15 years ago, have called for a unilateral withdrawal.

"I'm not prepared for [Israeli] soldiers to become hostages kept by the Syrians," Sharon said during a Cabinet meeting last week.

The Israeli Jews in the Golan worry that Netanyahu's support of their presence on the heights may wither in the face of pressure to reach an agreement on Israel's presence in Southern Lebanon.

The Golan committee had hoped Albright would visit the area. She is to meet with Assad, the Syrian president, during her tour of the region.

The Golan Druse, who refer to themselves as Syrian Arabs, don't expect any change in their status as a result of Albright's meetings in Jerusalem or Damascus.

"She'll come and go and nothing will happen," said Majid Shalan, 55, who served in the Syrian army as a young man when the Golan Heights belonged to Syria.

Pub Date: 9/11/97

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