Interview with Yehuda Harel


On Monday, I traveled to Katzrin to meet with Yehuda Harel. Known in some circles as the “father of settlement” in the Golan, Harel was intimately involved with the founding of Merom Golan, the first Jewish settlement to be built in any of the newly conquered territories after the 1967 Six Day War. As a former head of the Golan Residents Committee, he helped found some 33 Jewish communities in the Heights.

Harel has been deeply politically involved in the struggle (מאבק) to prevent Israeli withdrawal from the territory. A former aide to Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and active in the Labour Party (עבודה), he broke from the party in protest of PM Shimon Peres’ moves to negotiate with Syria over the Golan. In 1996, along with former Avodah MKs Avigdor Kahalani and Emanuel Zisman, he help found a short-lived political party: the Third Way. The party won four seats in the 1996 Knesset elections, Harel among them, on a platform of opposition to withdrawal from the Golan. As a coalition partner in Netanyahu’s Likud-led government, it played a pivotal role in ensuring majority parliamentary opposition to territorial negotiations with Syria. In the 1999 elections, the party failed to secure a seat and exited the Israeli political stage.

Our conversation began with a discussion of why Harel and his compatriots moved to settle in the Golan Heights. What he had to say surprised me. Nowhere in this part of our conversation did he make mention of the threat posed by Syria, the strategic importance of the Heights, or even the frequent Syrian ballistic attacks endured by residents of the Galilee between 1949 and 1967. All were popular tropes of the time and remain so today. Rather, he argued that settlement of the Golan was a fulfillment of the Zionist mission: hityashvut (settlement), haganah (defense), and aliyah (immigration).

This was not a matter of settlement for security (התיישבות למען ביטחון) or even security for settlement (ביטחון למען התיישבות) but rather a core value of Zionist pioneering itself. The determination of the borders of both the state and the land of Israel, he asserted, have always been determined by the extent of Jewish settlement. While there are certain core areas, Jerusalem in particular, other places like the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights have gone back and forth. The Sinai, Harel argued, has historically been a no-man’s land, switching between sovereign control of the powers that have controlled Egypt and those that have controlled Israel depending on their relative strength.

So too with the Golan. Extensive archaeological excavations since Israel’s capture of the territory have revealed that the Heights have been controlled by numerous civilizations: among them the ancient Canaanites, Israelites, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, and Ottomans. When the Middle East was carved up into “mandates” by the British and French after the First World War, the Golan was taken by the French as a compromise for British control elsewhere (Halpern’s The Idea of the Jewish State offers a detailed account). “The only way to know the future,” Harel insists, “is to do it.” If Israel was to secure its control of the region as every power before it, it had to engage in settlement.

And what of the idea of relinquishing Israeli control of the Golan for peace with Syria? This, he said, would have been an interesting idea 40 years ago, but today the Golan is like any other place in Israel, “like Haifa or Tel Aviv.” He admitted that there are many people today who claim that territory is not what is important to a nation. Rather, ideas like culture, language, society, and even security are seen as synonymous with peace while valuation of “land” (אדמה) is seen as fascist. Yet, Harel insists, even outside of the former values, land is important. Without land, there is no way to have a political state, but more importantly, he believes that culture, language, and national society are dependent upon territory. The survival and flourishing of the Hebrew language, of Judaism, and Jewish people, he believes, are today predicated on the existence of a territorial state.

Does such insistence on continuing Israeli control in the Golan then extend to other contentious territories like the West Bank or Gaza? He insists that although he believes in the idea of a whole land of Israel (ארץ ישראל השלמה) and would be happy if Israel could remain in places like Gaza, he is a realist. Even before the disengagement, there were between 1 and 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza and a handful of Israelis in a very small area. It is much easier in the Golan: there are much fewer Arabs, many more Israelis, and few calling loudly for Israel’s withdrawal. This is true even though Gaza was part of the British Mandate and the Golan was not.

For Harel, it is most important that Jewish people be the majority in the Land of Israel. Although the implication may be difficult to swallow, this means that Israel must withdraw from places in which Arabs are the distinct majority while consolidating its control in those places where Jews make up the majority. This was a key element of the platform of the Third War. Aside from insisting that Israel continue to exercise sovereignty in the Golan, it proposed that Israel withdraw from Gaza and partition Judea and Samaria. In this scheme, Israel would maintain control over the “empty” strategic areas like the Jordan Valley as well as the major Jewish population centers like Ariel and Gush Etzion as well as East Jerusalem.

But is the fact of a majority Jewish population enough of a reason to remain in the Golan? Would a formal peace be worth the sacrifice? Harel insists that the idea of peace with Syria is today a fairy tale. Peace is, first and foremost, an absence of war, and from there one can have a weak peace or a strong peace. The peace between the United States and Mexico, or the the United State and Canada is a strong peace; one in which neither party has an interest to attack the other, in which there is genuine friendship, and in which all players are stable and secure. Such a peace, he believes, is unrealistic in the Middle East.

In terms of stability, looking at the recent events in Tunisia, Lebanon, and Egypt, who can say, with any certainty, that states in the Arab world will look the same in the near future? In terms of security and peace, what would be the value of an agreement with Syria? Today, there is no war between Israel and Syria and the border remains quiet even without a peace treaty. The value of an agreement in which Israel would withdraw from the Golan would be less than the paper it is printed on. Israel would be less secure and more internally unstable in exchange for a reality it already enjoys; quiet in the north.

That said, does he foresee that the Israeli government might still give up the Golan in the near future? First of all, he insists, one cannot prophesize, especially about the future. Secondly, the only way to know what will be is to “do the future.” In this, he believes Israel must continue to settle and develop the Heights treating it as any other part of the country. If Israeli sovereignty in this region is not already an irreversible fact, it certainly soon will be. Finally, Israel is a democracy and there is nothing that politicians care more about than staying in office. “If 80% of Israelis are opposed to leaving the Golan, than the Prime Minister will also opposed to it.” He can tell the Americans that he is ready to “give it,” but it is not the right time. However, in the end, it is really the public who will give him the power to keep the Golan or give it away.

One Response to Interview with Yehuda Harel

  1. jeff says:

    good article and it catches the fact, that the issue is moral, not just geo-politcal. The morals are not rooted in racism, but the conflict is so clear and the morality – still a questionmark

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