Golan Heights shrugs off peace talks

Israel Materials 26 November 2007 00:28 (UTC +04:00)

( AP ) - Syria's decision to attend the Annapolis summit on Mideast peace has raised the prospect of negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights. But Israeli settlers say they are not worried the strategic plateau may return to Syrian control, pointing to a long history of failed attempts to settle the dispute.

Syria agreed to send its deputy foreign minister to the Mideast conference Monday after the United States said Damascus would be free to bring up the Golan Heights, which Israel seized 40 years ago.

Syria has said peace would require Israel to return the Golan, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has signaled he is ready to do so.

Israeli settlers living in the territory doubt anything will change soon.

"This is a ritual that repeats itself and never leads to anything," said Sammy Bar-Lev, the mayor of Katzrin, the largest Jewish town in the Golan, with 7,500 residents. "We're not dealing with this at all. If they ( Syria) want peace, they will have to get used to the fact that the border is not changing."

Unlike the West Bank and Gaza, where Palestinians have violently rejected Israeli rule, the Golan's Jewish and Arab residents largely live in harmony.

The 485-square-mile plateau in the southwestern corner of Syria is a top vacation destination for Israelis, with its placid countryside, assortment of wineries, ski resorts and farms. It overlooks the Sea of Galilee and northern Israel.

Aboard his plane to the United States, Olmert said Israel would consider negotiations with Syria if conditions are right. Israel demands that Syria distance itself from Iran and stop harboring Palestinian and Lebanese militants committed to destruction of the Jewish state.

Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, called Syria's decision to attend the conference a "positive development."

"The meetings are clearly about the Israeli-Palestinian process, but could be the beginning of new avenues to peace in the Middle East," she said.

The sudden activity is nothing new to the Golan's 40,000 residents, about half of whom are Israeli settlers and the other half Druse Arabs, most of them Syrian citizens.

Penny Naftali, a Katzrin resident of 30 years, said she hasn't heard a murmur about the conference at her coffee shop and was not concerned about the future of her home.

"I've raised children here, I've raised grandchildren here. We're not going anywhere," she said. "This doesn't bother us at all. If the time comes, we will know how to fight, but there is no need right now."

Lital Ashtamkar, 27, who works at a steakhouse in the communal farm of Merom Golan, said the talk among her clientele in recent days has been all about one topic - comedian Jerry Seinfeld's visit to Israel.

While most Druse residents favor returning the Golan to Syria, few expect much from the meeting in Maryland.

"It's not really spoken about, people are satiated with talk," said Qassim Sabbagh, 38, from Majdal Shams. "Expectations that something will happen is low, and people's hopes are low."

Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, though its sovereignty is not internationally recognized.

Tensions between the two nations have been higher since an Israeli airstrike two months ago against a facility in northern Syria. Commercial satellite images have indicated a site for a future nuclear reactor might have been destroyed, but Syria has denied developing such a reactor.

But Israeli officials have said Israel and Syria have held high-level talks to explore the possibility of resuming negotiations. Talks broke down in 2000 when Syria rejected Israel's offer to withdraw from the Golan, with minor border adjustments near Israel's Sea of Galilee at the foot of the plateau.

Eran Glick, who heads the tourism office in Merom Golan, said he has recently finished construction of 20 new cabins and was preparing to build more.

As for the Annapolis conference, "no one is talking about it here, no one is interested," he said. "Every time this comes up, I am asked the same thing. I'm sorry to disappoint - we'll keep doing and building, and they can continue to sit and talk."