Why Israel Is Willing to Hand Back the Golan

New technology means the Heights are less important strategically. Plus, Syria holds key to peace in southern Lebanon.

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Israeli kicking and screaming notwithstanding, Ehud Barak plans to hand the Golan Heights back to Syria — as a price for a comprehensive peace all along Israel's northern frontier. Israel's parliament Tuesday voted 47 to 31 to back Barak's peace talks with Syria, scheduled to begin in Washington Wednesday, in which the prime minister warned Israel would pay a "heavy territorial price." Following the plateau's capture in 1967, Israeli military doctrine held that it afforded Syrian artillery such a range over Israeli flatlands that handing it back to Damascus was strategic suicide. But warfare has changed considerably since then, and satellite and other electronic surveillance gives Israel a detailed picture of Syrian military movements that renders watchtowers on the Heights dispensable.

The deal with Syria, first mooted by slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, involves returning the Golan to Syria, but as a demilitarized zone monitored by the U.S. or some other international authority. A deal that treats any movement of Syrian military hardware into that zone as an act of war may be acceptable to Israel's generals. Of course, many Israelis are loath to trust their Arab neighbors, and would just as soon hang on to all the real estate they can. But Barak holds a trump card: Israel continues to pay a heavy price in human life for its occupation of southern Lebanon, and the call for Israeli withdrawal is overwhelmingly popular across party lines. But the only way out is a deal in which Israel's borders are protected from attack by Hezbollah guerrillas — a guarantee that only Syria, as the de facto military power in Lebanon, could credibly offer. And Syria has made recovering the Golan the price of peace in Lebanon.