In a new strip mall built of dark pinkish stone in the city of Katzrin, a brand new $5 million Golan Heights visitors center sells the surrounding landscape as simply too beautiful for Israel to ever hand over to the Syrians.
It’s part of a new message Israeli residents of the Golan are trying hard to promote especially now as Israel and Syria have resumed peace talks, this time indirectly through Turkey with a return of the territory as a presumed condition of a deal. The sides sat down Monday morning, continuing the discussions recently revealed to have been going on secretly for the past year. The centerpiece of the visitor center’s publicity efforts is a 20-minute film that opens to a thumping beat as a plane soars skyward and then swoops down giving a bird’s eye view of the rushing waters of the Jordan River, cows grazing in a verdant pasture, sun-kissed vineyards, passengers waving from jeep tours, and a snow-topped Mt. Hermon.
The words “Discover a New World” roll over fields of wild purple irises and cowboys gallop through a golden sunset before the special effects are released: a light spritz of mist falls on the audience as artfully shot fat rain drops fall slow-motion onto Golan ground. It looks more Montana than Israel and this is a point that resonates with the majority of Israelis who do not see Jewish settlement of the Golan Heights, annexed from Syria following the 1967 Mideast War, in the same controversial light as they view their countrymen who have settled in other territory captured at the same time like the West Bank.
The Golan, with a population of about 20,000 Jews and 18,000 Druze has been thoroughly embraced by Israelis who have made it a popular destination for hiking and holidays, beloved for the natural beauty of its open spaces, a respite from the crowded sun-parched center of the country.
A poll of 600 Israelis by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research found that 67 percent of Israelis oppose signing a peace deal with Syria that would involve handing over the Golan Heights. And 60.5 percent were not particularly troubled by the lack of peace between the two countries saying that prospects of war seemed unlikely and the status quo of no deal suited them just fine.
Its residents like to say it’s the safest place in the country, removed from tensions with the Palestinians and point out that its border with Syria is the quietest one Israel knows, despite the lack of a peace deal.
Ori Zecharia, 52, a jeep tour operator with graying curls, said the news of talks with Syria felt like being hit “with a hammer on the head.”
“The land here has great historic and strategic importance and it’s our right to live here,” said Zecharia, who moved here from the center of the country thirty years ago. “Every compromise we make shows weakness and invites more attacks.”
Daniella Levkowitz, 33, who grew up in the Golan says she can imagine no other home.
“It’s a quiet border. I feel safe here. This is my home, in my heart I don’t see myself anywhere else,” said Levkowitz, a social worker, her baby daughter in her lap.
She says once she believed in peace, but after so many disappointments with Israel’s neighbors she said, she no longer feels that handing over territory will lead to a secure future.
Like other residents here she also is not too concerned anything will come of this most recent round of peace efforts. Two previous rounds of talks broke down in the 1990s. They also point to the political woes Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is steeped in and are counting on him to be too weak to push something as momentous – and controversial – as the return of the Golan in exchange for an agreement with Syria.
Meanwhile Syria is seen to be using the talks as part of a bid to gain international public acceptance, specifically American support, after being shunned for aiding Hezbollah and Hamas. Trying perhaps to deflect backlash in the Arab world against the contacts with Israel, Syrian officials are now trying to downplay the likelihood of direct talks with the Jewish state anytime soon.
Syria’s continued arming of Hezbollah despite the talks also does not bode well.
But Israeli analyst Amnon Abramovich gave a bleak assessment of Israel’s options in a recent Channel Two news broadcast: “If there is no peace agreement with Syria, then there’ll be war with Syria. War with Syria means rockets on Givatayim, Hod HaSharon, Holon and Bat Yam,” he said citing Israeli towns in the center of the country. “A thousand dead – children, women and so forth – towns destroyed. Israel will win, but where will they start the negotiations then and what will they negotiate about?
“There’ll be a ceasefire, if, God forbid, there is a war, and the negotiations will be over the Golan. It’s better to hold the negotiations before the war than after it.”