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THE ELECTIONS IN ISRAEL : In Golan Heights, Fatalism

Security: No matter who wins election, Israeli settlers believe, Syria will get the strategic region.

May 30, 1996|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KATSRIN, Golan Heights — It seemed like a clear-cut choice for the 15,000 Israeli residents of the strategic Golan Heights: Labor Party candidate Shimon Peres talked of returning the Golan to Syria in exchange for a permanent peace treaty, while Likud Party hopeful Benjamin Netanyahu labeled any return of the green and wind-swept highlands "impossible."

But to hear residents tell it Wednesday, it was a false choice. For them, the handwriting is already on the wall.

"Whoever wins, whether it is Peres or [Netanyahu], is going to give the Golan back," said Chaim Greenberg, a 55-year-old Holocaust survivor who has lived in the Golan for 19 years. "We have no alternative but to sacrifice our homes for the sake of the Jewish state."

Schoolteacher Maya Shaked drew a similar conclusion as she watched her neighbors vote in this tidy northern town of 5,000, the largest Israeli settlement in the Golan, which is situated between Syria, Lebanon and the Sea of Galilee.

"They are already worried about their next house," she said. "The fix is in."

She said she felt ashamed that more Israelis did not want to fight to hold on to the area, which she called "the most beautiful and strategic place in the country."

The Golan is a water-rich plateau surrounded by snowcapped peaks. It offers breathtaking vistas, where apple trees grow, cattle graze and Israeli soldiers can stare down the eastern slopes almost all the way to Damascus, the Syrian capital.

Captured by Israel in 1967, the Golan was formally annexed in 1981 under the government of then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin to serve as a strategic bulwark against a surprise attack.

During the election campaign, Netanyahu argued that a decision to surrender the Golan would be damaging to the country and was premature at best.

Talks between Peres' government and Damascus over the future of the Golan deadlocked last year and were formally suspended during a wave of suicide terrorist attacks in Israel in February and March.

The talks are expected to resume after the new prime minister is seated.

Peres' negotiators were insisting that Syrian President Hafez Assad give security guarantees to Israel and agree to share the Golan's water resources before any change in the area's ownership can take place.

Assad demands that the Golan be returned unconditionally.

Israel's occupation of the Golan has been relatively safe. Sparsely populated, the heights have never been a place where an uprising would occur like the intifada of the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. And the region has been less contentious because the Golan is not considered an integral part of the biblical Israeli homeland.

Nevertheless, it is easy to find people in the Golan who do not want to give it back.

Shaked said she is not sure what has changed in Israel's outlook.

"People came here because it was supposed to be so strategic," she said, "but then they just lost their motivation."

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