It took the Israeli army 30 hours to scale, storm and capture the wind-whipped Golan Heights from Syria in 1967. And if Michal Raikin has her way, it will be another 30 years, or 300, or 3,000, before Israel gives the Golan back.
When statesmen and diplomats speak of trading land for peace between Israel and its most powerful Arab neighbor, they mean the land where Raikin lives. The 34-year-old economics teacher and mother of three resides in an open, breezy house, its front door framed by an arched trellis covered by a vine of plump white grapes. Fragrant orchards stand close to her home, and some of Israel's best wine is made nearby. Tourists swarm over the area year-round.
The scenery is breathtaking and the strategic value is evident: Before Syria lost the Golan, its artillery overlooked Israel's northern towns and villages. Now Israeli monitoring systems on the commanding heights can track any significant military movements in western Syria and Lebanon, including in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Moreover, a tenth of Israel's water comes from the Golan.
To Raikin, the notion of trading this house, this land and this water for peace with Syria is the height of lunacy.
"I'll do everything I can for peace--but a peace that will keep me in my house," she said the other day, lounging in her sun-dappled back yard in Kidmat Zvi, a placid village of tidy homes and lawns moistened by sprinklers. "I have a life now much better than I ever dreamed about, and I want it to stay just like this, exactly."
Bitter, confused, defensive and girding for a fight, Israeli residents of the Golan are watching in dismay as the political ground shifts beneath them.
Many came to the Golan 20 or 30 years ago, encouraged by the government and convinced they were fulfilling Zionism's most basic credo, to settle the land. On the Golan's 454 square miles, an area barely larger than Fairfax County, the Jewish settlers enjoyed a life as crime-free, tranquil and scenic as any in Israel. They built homes, planted vineyards and started collective farms around the ruined stone houses where as many as 100,000 Syrians had lived before the 1967 war. Israel annexed the territory in 1981; perhaps naively, few Golan residents imagined the Syrians would ever return.
So they were stunned in the early 1990s when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, once their leading patron, began discussing giving the Golan back to Syria in return for peace. Now, Rabin's political heir, newly installed Prime Minister Ehud Barak, is edging toward resuming the public talks with Syria that were broken off in 1996, and suggesting he intends to strike a deal to give up much of the Golan within a year.
In Barak's view, peace with Syria also holds the key to ending Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon--a quagmire in which 20 or 30 Israeli soldiers die every year. Many Israelis want a deal with Syria that will allow them to exit Lebanon cleanly. If the price of peace is evacuating 17,000 Jewish residents of the Golan, so be it, they say.
To Raikin, that view is deeply discomfiting. "What, I need to have on my conscience every dead soldier in Lebanon?" she said. "If we're going to give up everything, then my grandchild won't have a Jewish country to live in."
If Israel agrees to withdraw from the Golan, she will not go easily. "I will try to make it so traumatic for the Israeli state that it will never again think of such a thing as evacuating Israelis from their houses," she said icily.
Most Golan residents say they will oppose eviction, but within the limits of the law. Still, the intensity of Raikin's resolve rings a bell in Israel. After Israel handed back the Sinai peninsula in return for peace with Egypt in 1982, Israeli troops forcibly evacuated 2,000 Jewish settlers from their homes in a Sinai settlement called Yamit.
Few people in the Golan are threatening to fight Israeli troops who come to evict them, but equally few predict a smooth evacuation.
"I'm giving the picture of 5,000 trucks [leaving the Golan] in a convoy of [155 miles]," said Avi Zeira, leader of the Golan Residents Committee, which is leading the opposition to giving up the Golan. "I think it would blow up Israeli society. They would not be able to stand it."
Zeira, 48, who has spent more than half his life in the Golan, is not waiting for the evacuation to begin. He is already plotting a campaign aimed at the media, public opinion and the national referendum Barak has promised to hold so that Israelis can vote on any land-for-peace deal. A $10 million fund-raising campaign is planned, and a consultant has been hired to devise strategy.
Still, it is dawning on many in the Golan that Syria is not their only adversary. Weary of the body bags in southern Lebanon, about half of Israelis are now prepared to hand over the Golan, according to a recent survey published in the newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth. More surprisingly, a growing minority of Israelis in the Golan itself--about a third, the poll suggests--would vote to swap their own land for peace.
Those views, unthinkable a decade ago, were reflected in the May elections. Fifty-seven percent of Golan residents voted for Barak despite his promise to withdraw Israeli troops within a year from southern Lebanon, presumably as part of a land-for-peace deal with Syria. And a party called the Third Way, dedicated exclusively to retaining the Golan, lost all four of its seats in parliament.
"We conquered it. It's right to be here. But for peace I'm willing to give it back," said Yoav Tsur, an engineer who operates the 10 wind turbines perched high on a hill in the Golan, a half-mile from the Syrian border.
Tsur, a chunky, forthright man, sees the political calculus of land and peace in personal terms. His teenage son is a soldier in a unit slated to fight in southern Lebanon. "Even my home is not worth even one hair on a soldier's head," he said.
Mostly muted in the debate are 14,000 Druze Muslims, once Syrian citizens, who have remained clustered in four villages in the northern Golan since Syria's defeat. Their relations with the Israeli settlers have been uneasy at times, although less so than the relationship between the Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank.
Many have relatives in Syria, but they are also aware that Syria's economy is in crisis. "Maybe it would be a little hard under the Syrians, but still it would be better than here," said Nessiba, a Druze saleswoman in the village of Buqata.
As the battle over the Golan rages, some here are studiously ignoring it. In the 1990s about 2,000 Russian-speaking immigrants have moved to the Golan's only real town, Qatzrin. The Golan Heights Winery, whose business is booming, is investing $8.5 million in a major plant expansion. A new teachers' college has opened in Qatzrin. Many refused to dwell on talk of evacuation.
But the uncertain future has cast a shadow. The Golan's economy, anchored in tourism and agriculture, is flat. Most investments are on hold. People in their twenties have left for the high-tech corridor around Tel Aviv. The average age in the Golan is about 45, and rising.
Yehuda Harel, 65, one of the founders of the Third Way, is braced for the worst. He moved to the Golan a month after Israel captured it in 1967 and made a life here as a teacher and activist. Smiling and soft-spoken, he marshals arguments against evacuation one moment, then sounds resigned the next.
"My life here is like a cruise ship," he said.
"My wife is is here, my kids are here, I have good wine, good weather. The only problem is the name of the cruise ship is the Titanic. . . . But at least we see the iceberg coming."