That most unlikely presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson has just returned from a fact-finding tour of the Middle East with yet another quirky idea. His latest “revelation” is that Arab countries should absorb the Syrian refugees—and not us. He doesn’t seem to know that three countries in the Middle East have already absorbed the vast majority of the refugees; Jordan has given refuge to many hundred thousand refugees. Tiny Lebanon has taken in as many refugees as Jordan—and Turkey has harbored even more.
Oddly enough, Carson never mentioned Israel—a neighbor that has occupied 10 percent of Syria for nearly 50 years. It should be obvious, but hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees could be absorbed into their native soil, the Golan Heights. The occupied Golan has always been the main stumbling block to an Israeli-Syrian peace accord. In fact, the current Syrian civil war began in the southern Syrian town of Dara, home to some 50,000 refugees from the Golan. In 2006, I was in Dara and talked with a young man whose family had fled the Golan in 1973. He said to me, with tears in his eyes “every morning I get up and go to the barbed wire fence that is the frontier and look across and the Golan to my family farm. And I cry.”
Some 8,000 Syrians still live in the Golan but they have steadfastly refused Israeli citizenship and live apart from Israeli society. These Syrians live in the city of Majed es Shams at the foot of what the Arabs have called for centuries Jebal Sheikh or the mountain of the Sheikh. From its 11,000 foot heights the Israelis are able to monitor the telephone systems of Damascus and Eastern Lebanon—so the Israelis might find it difficult to give up this intelligence station.
But by agreeing in principle to return the Golan and giving the Syrian refugees a haven on the Golan Heights, Israel would be assisting mightily in the war against ISIS. Return of the Golan would also give any new coalition government in Damascus a powerful degree of legitimacy. The Golan may thus be the key element in creating a new Syria.
There are countless ways that this could be initiated now through the United Nations and other refugee organizations. To be sure, rumors abound that the Israelis intend to put new settlements on the Golan where there are already 25,000 Israelis raising grapes and making excellent wine. Many of those settlers are American, and they might not wish to remain in their vineyards if the Golan is ever returned to Syria. But there are solutions. These Golan Israelis could be resettled in the northern Galilee.
The point is that hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees need help now. By giving up the Golan Heights and providing sanctuary to innocent refugees, Israel could accomplish both a strategic peace with its neighbor—and perform a great humanitarian “mitzvah.”
This may seem an outlandish scenario, but people forget that 20 years ago President Bashar Assad’s father nearly reached an agreement for peace with Israel in return of all the Golan Heights. The near-deal negotiated at the Shepherdstown, West Virginia peace conference collapsed only when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stipulated that he could agree to give back the Golan—but not a strip of land along the Sea of Galilee just 150 to 200 yards wide and several miles long. Rabin was clearly unable to overcome objections from those within his own government who wanted to keep Syria away from the Sea of Galilee. They feared giving Syria riparian rights to the Galilee waters which at the time was the most important source of water for Israel. But today, the Galilee waters are no longer so crucial; Israel has solved its water shortages with an efficient and cost-effective desalinization program. Neither does Israel need the Golan Heights for military reasons; Tel Aviv commands by far the largest, most modern army in the Middle East and it is equipped with battlefield nuclear weapons. What Israel needs is peace with its immediate neighbors. Israel needs a peaceful Syria—and the defeat of ISIS. By indicating that it is now finally ready to relinquish the Golan Heights, Israel could kick-start a peace process in Syria.
Foreign Minister Saud al Feisal told me years ago, “Without a peace between Israel and Syria, there will be no peace in the Middle East.” He was right. But today it is also true that without peace between Israel and Syria there can be no end to the Syrian civil war—and no defeat of the apocalyptic, cultish militia called ISIS.