The ongoing slaughter of Syrian civilians by the country’s own army and the build up of military forces and tensions around its borders and in the Eastern Mediterranean may have, at least for now, put on indefinite hold any discussions regarding an Israeli – Syrian agreement under which the Golan Heights would be returned to Syrian control.
Older Israelis still have clear memories of what life under the Syrian Heights as they were called then was like for the Israeli villages of the Upper Galilee, the eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee and the northern Jordan valley. Daily Syrian artillery fire made inhabitants’ and farmers’ lives a living hell for years on end. In some Kibbutzim, houses were destroyed and rebuilt literally a dozen times over the years. An ongoing Syrian effort to divert the sources of the Jordan River and deprive Israel of its life blood – water – was at full swing, and Syrian war planes regularly challenged Israel’s airspace, clashing with Israeli interceptors coming up to meet and beat them.
For many years, Middle East countries and the super powers backing them toyed extensively with the concept of ‘Territories for Peace’. The idea was that Israel should hand back to Arab countries territories it had taken from then during the 1967 Six Days War, and in return would get a lasting peace with all its security and economic benefits.
The first such peace agreement was signed with Egypt. Over a few years, the Sinai Peninsula, which the Egyptians tried and failed to retake by force in 1973, was gradually returned to Egyptian control, complete with its oil fields, mineral reserves and tourist resorts. All signs of former Israeli settlement were literally blown up and bulldozed to the ground by Israel before the final handover took place. Severe limitations were placed on Egyptian armed forces presence in the Sinai and American monitoring stations were established to ensure compliance.
Over the years, and despite the assassination of Egypt’s peace prophet, President Anwar Sadat, the agreement was respected by both sides. In recent years,Israel has even relaxed its terms and allowed the Egyptian army a growing armed presence aimed at fighting weapon smuggling into the Gaza Strip. Sadat was replaced by his deputy Hosni Mubarak who continued to tow the peace line, albeit with much less enthusiasm.
Then came the so called ‘Arab Spring’ and with it, the demise of the Mubarak regime. Egyptian extreme political elements, hitherto suppressed, started raising their head and their voices. Calls for the annulment of the peace agreement were followed by the siege and destruction of the Israeli embassy. Advanced Libyan weapons were and are freely trafficked across Egypt and through the snuggling tunnels into Gaza, and and armed terrorist group crossed Israel’s southern border under the disinterested eyes of Egyptian policemen and attacked civilian Israeli buses and cars on the road to Eilat killing eight people. In an act of brazen defiance an Egyptian military helicopter entered Israel’s airspace and flew over the Negev for 25 minutes completely ignoring scrambled Israeli fighter jets.
With the results of Egypt’s ongoing elections far from certain, a large question mark is now hanging over the future of its peace agreement with Israel. Irrespective of the kind of ‘peace’ Israel will be left with if at all, one thing is certain: the Sinai Peninsula that was handed back to secure this peace will remain in Egyptian hands. Irrespective of whom will rule Syria in the coming years, Israel must ensure that under no circumstances will the Golan Heights become the subject of a similar betrayal of trust.