Golan silent minority would trade the land

GOLAN HEIGHTS — Posters and bumper stickers decorating most buildings and cars throughout this region proclaim a slogan that can now be seen and heard virtually everywhere in Israel — "Ha'am im HaGolan" (the people are with the Golan).

But not all the people are with the Golan.

There is a silent minority — or, they hope, a majority — who agree with Prime Minister Ehud Barak and are willing to trade the Golan in exchange for a peace treaty with Syria.

But they are not organized like the Golan Residents Committee, which created the posters and bumper stickers. Unlike that committee, they haven't put together a war chest to further their cause. They do not go abroad to speak and raise funds, and they don't run around Israel speaking at schools, civic functions and elsewhere.

Yigal Kipnis is one of those people who support Barak's talks with Syria. He has lived in the Golan since 1978 and knows many members of the committee. They are not his enemies, he told an international group of Jewish writers and editors. They are his neighbors.

Kipnis, a Technion-educated civil engineer who also serves as a lieutenant colonel in the Israeli reserves, loves the Golan. He raised a family there. He'd like to stay.

But he complains that many of his friends "cannot separate emotion from logic." He simply asks that those who oppose giving back the Golan "not speak for me."

He is a member of a small "forum" that doesn't get much attention and doesn't clamor for it — the Golan on the Way to Peace. The forum was formed in 1995 to "provide a platform for public debate on different aspects of peace in the area."

His reason for backing Barak is simple: "When I weigh the balance, the benefits for the state of Israel are much more important than the price we [on the Golan] must pay."

Signing a peace treaty with Syria, he said, would allow Israel to earmark more of its resources for education, industry and science instead of defense.

He disagrees with those who cite the strategic importance of the Golan, which towers directly above the Galilee on one side and Damascus on the other. Kipnis reminds listeners that in 1967 Israel captured the Golan in 36 hours, and now a stronger Israeli military could do it even quicker. But he says a peace treaty with Syria would make that unnecessary.

Regardless, Kipnis believes the real threat to Israel is not from Syrian forces on the Golan but from Iran, which will be able to fire missiles at the center of Israel, not just the Galilee.

Addressing concerns that Israel cannot afford to give away the Golan since it controls 30 percent of Israel's water supplies, Kipnis is confident Barak will make sure water issues are part of any peace agreement reached with Syria.

Kipnis uses historical ammunition to support trading the Golan to win peace with Syria. Based on past mistakes, he said, Israel will be better off "making peace when we are strong."

He points out that the lives of 3,000 Israelis who died in the 1973 war might have been saved if Israel had returned the land to Egypt that it eventually turned over years after the war.

He also says the Palestinian intifada could have been avoided as well, since Israel ultimately agreed at Oslo, in 1993, to give the Palestinians everything they wanted when they started the rebellion six years earlier.

"I don't think there is a reason to suffer another fight with Syria and ultimately make a peace afterwards that would be the same as we could make before," Kipnis says.

He admits, however, that the sentiment throughout Israel seems to be turning against surrendering the Golan. Many political pundits say Barak might lose such a referendum if it were held today.

But Kipnis thinks the mood will shift.

"I am quite sure when the peace agreement will be put on the table, public opinion will change."

He points out that when Barak campaigned for prime minister, Israelis knew he favored trading the Golan for peace with Syria. Nonetheless, Barak won 57 percent of the votes in the Golan.

Mark Linton, a friend of Kipnis' who has lived on the Golan for 22 years and raised four children here, chimed in: "If I think the peace treaty will bring peace, I will vote for it. I don't care about the real estate."

So why don't Kipnis and Linton and other like-minded people on the Golan compete with the Golan Residents Committee to win support for a peace treaty with Syria?

Linton says the answer is simple.

"We don't need to say, 'Let's give everything back.' Then the Syrian negotiators would say, 'What are you negotiating for? Your people want to give it all back.'

"If you want us to make stickers, we could go out and make stickers and put them up.

"But it's convincing the convinced."

But Linton, like Kipnis, believes Barak's referendum ultimately will succeed. "No one can honestly say we can keep the Golan Heights and have peace with Syria."