Yom Kippur: War and Peace With Syria

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - On the eve of Yom Kippur this year, Israel stands poised to resume peace negotiations with Syria. Israelis today are marking the "solemn assembly" of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, with prayer and fasting.

Many Israelis are also remembering Yom Kippur 26 years ago, October 6, 1973 according to the Gregorian calendar. That day was abruptly interrupted when Israeli army officers ran from synagogue to synagogue to mobilize the army. Syria and Egypt were staging a surprise attack against the country.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak spoke to his cabinet about the 26th anniversary of the Yom Kippur war and recalled the "pain and suffering caused by the war."

For three weeks Israel fought, managing not only to repulse the attacks but to come within 20 miles of the Syrian capital of Damascus in the north and crossing the Suez Canal in the south.

As a result of negotiations following the Yom Kipur War, Israel withdrew from some of the territory it had captured in the north and as a price for "peace" with its southern neighbor, Egypt, relinquished the Sinai peninsula in 1979. However, Israel retained control over the Golan Heights, which it had possessed since 1967.

Barak recommended that his ministers read the secret sections of the Agranat report written in the wake of the war. Israel failed to prepare itself in the face of gathering armies on its northern and southern borders, under the misconception that Syria and Egypt would not attack on Yom Kippur. Barak called it a "story of a misreading of reality."

However, according to the cabinet communique last week he "clearly differentiated between the events of the war and its consequences, and today's peace process."

Speculations abound about when exactly Syrian-Israeli talks might begin again. Last week, Jordan's King Abdullah announced that talks between Jerusalem and Damascus would begin within two weeks or a month at the most.

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara spoke to French President Jacques Chirac over the weekend and reiterated his country's position that Israel must withdrawal from the Golan Heights in order for talks to even begin.

Syria insisted that it received a promise of a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights via a US diplomat by former prime minister the late Yitzhak Rabin. Israel, while saying it is willing to talk, said it never made nor will make such concessions in advance of talks.

"For their part, the Syrians are making two mistakes," former Prime Minister Shimon Peres said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post. "One, in their refraining from meeting with us, which raises doubts as to their true intentions; and the other in their counter-Hollywood insistence on getting a happy end already at the outset."

David Newman, Chair of the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told CNSNews.com that for Israel, the issue of the Golan Heights is actually much simpler to deal with than that of Judea and Samaria, also known as the West Bank. "It is not tied up with (religious) ideological issues," Newman said.

"I would say there are two critical issues (regarding the Golan Heights)," Newman explained: "the strategic security issue and water."

There is "nothing holy" about the borders on the Golan Heights, according to Newman. As a nation, Syria only controlled the Heights for 19 years from the time it gained its independence from France in 1949, a year after Israel became a state, until 1967.

However, there is a "greater consensus in Israel" about retaining the Golan Heights, Newman added, not because of the 18,000 settlers who live there, but because of security and water considerations.

From 1949 to 1967, Syria repeatedly attacked the Galilee from the Heights, but for the past 32 years, Israel has seen relative quiet along this border.

Another issue is water, with about 30 percent of Israel's water resources being controlled by the Golan Heights.

Syria is calling on the US to play an active role in Israel-Syria negotiations. "The leadership found that the responsibility of the US administration in the peace process is a basic responsibility," said the National Progressive Front, the country's ruling coalition. "We demand that this administration act accordingly to the responsibility which it bears as cosponsor of the peace process."

Recent Israeli press reports said that President Bill Clinton would be willing to "jump start" a peace process between Israel and Syria if all else failed. In response to this rumor, the State Department said that the United States is "prepared to work very hard on promoting peace between Israel and Syria, and that we've worked very hard in the past, and we're prepared to work very hard in the future."

Shortly after her visit to the Middle East earlier this month, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave her assessment of why Syria might be ready to enter negotiations at this time.

"I think that (Syrian) President (Hafez) Assad sees... that there is a real opportunity here with the movement that we were able to take at Sharm-El-Sheikh on the Palestinian track," Albright said.

There may be other reasons why Assad is ready to deal now. There are continuing reports that Assad is not a well man. But it looks like he may also be keeping his options open, if the peace process doesn't restart or succeed. Early last week, the Jerusalem Post reported that Assad is "sparing no expense" to develop a new surface-to-surface missile capable of reaching all of Israel.