Reuven Shalev is round, balding and deeply fascinating: one of those voices that betray the complexity of the Arab-Israeli conflict, that hint at a too often unreported-upon willingness to compromise and a tendency towards self-criticism, and that at least tilt towards empathy where tribal loyalties usually call for it to be denied.
There are plenty of absolutists on both sides of the separation barrier — I will be told more than once on my travels that the Muslim hordes are ravaging Europe and that the Jews must be pushed into the sea — but as someone who is highly ambivalent when it comes to the issue, not having already bet on one of the dogs in the pit, it is to the surprising number of those preaching nuance that I am inevitably drawn.
On my first night in Kfar Haruv, at the southern end of the Golan Heights, Reuven recalled the eve and aftermath of the Six-Day War, which he experienced as a six-year-old and remembers, not as a political narrative, but as a series of vivid, impressionistic vignettes. He discussed the fact that the Israeli government leaks like a sieve and, with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, told me why this worries him. It’s not because state secrets might get out, he said, but rather because he expects them to. “And if I don’t know where we’re hiding the nuclear weapons by now then I’m afraid we might be bluffing.”
The kibbutz’s resident maintenance man also talked about the First Lebanon War, which he experienced first-hand in the infantry, remembering the country that his was invading as beautiful and expressing his sadness that he was unable to visit it today. He described the IDF’s bombardment of West Beirut as an event for which “our country should feel ashamed”.
“We learnt a lot from that war,” he had told me that night. “We learnt not to think of ourselves as a superpower.”
The conversation continues this evening, upon my return from the Lebanese and Syrian borders, which I have been visiting with Reuven’s partner, the blogger Hadar Sela.
“We are struggling to answer a very fundamental, very important question here,” Reuven says. “What is a Jewish state? What does that term actually mean? Does it mean that we are here to advance religious goals, by settling all the land of Israel, bringing about the coming of Messiah, and so on? Does it mean that it is a state for Jewish people first and foremost and that Israeli Arabs and Christians are to be treated as second-class citizens? Or does it simply mean that any Jew in the world can come here if he needs to? I like this last option. This option is good. A Jewish majority, I am not so fussed about.
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“The most important thing is that Israel should remain a democracy. Jews, you know, we are a very disputatious people, very argumentative. Jewishness — not Judaism, but Jewishness — is a very democratic thing. If I have to choose between Jewish democracy and a Jewish majority, I choose Jewish democracy.”
Given my day-trip to the north, talk turns, inevitably, to the Golan, Syria, and the possibility of peace. “I would leave, you know,” Reuven says to my surprise. “I have a very nice home here and I would be sad to leave it, but I would do so if it meant peace with Syria.”
“Syria could have the Golan back if it wanted it. I don’t think it really wants it.”
We are sitting on the balcony at Kfar Haruv’s pub, which used to be the kibbutz library until Hadar mounted a campaign to fit it out with beer taps and a stereo system. We look out over the clearing where kibbutz weddings are held, past the Syrian Army bunker that still overlooks the Sea of Galilee’s eastern shore, and across the black expanse of the lake itself to the flickering lights of Tiberias on the other side. The bunker still has Syrian soldiers’ graffiti in it: adolescent declarations of love scrawled in Arabic, an out-of-date Syrian flag with three stars in its central colour band symbolising the then-unity of Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Those stars were replaced by the Eagle of Quraish in 1972 and by the time they came back, in 1980, Anwar Sadat had signed the Camp David Accords and Egypt’s was no longer required.
“The problem,” Reuven says, “is that you need a Syrian leader who’s willing to make that happen. The Assads were not willing to do so and I can’t see anyone coming along who is.”
He points down at the bunker. “That bunker is right on the 1949 Armistice Line,” he says. “At the end of the War of Independence [the 1948 Arab-Israeli War], Israel called upon Syria to withdraw to their side of the 1923 border between the British Mandate of Palestine and the French one of Syria. They initially refused, but eventually agreed upon a demilitarised zone. The edge of the cliff is where that zone began. But by the time of the Six-Day War in 1967, they had moved most of the way down to the shoreline. Before Israel ever put a foot on the Golan Heights, Syria already breached the agreed-upon boundaries.”
(This is accurate, but incomplete. Both sides illegally took advantage of the demilitarised zone and its territorial ambiguities, with Syria edging down the slopes and Israel regularly entering the area and deliberately drawing fire so as to justify retaliatory attacks.)
“OK,” Reuven says. “We offer the Assads the Golan up to this 1949 Armistice Line. But they don’t want that. They want the 1967 border, which they created illegally by descending the cliffs.
“OK. We try again. We offer the Assads the Golan up to this illegal border, but with a buffer zone around the lake. We offer them everything except access to the lake. But they don’t want that. They want the illegal border because it allows access to the lake, which neither the 1923 border or the 1949 armistice line had given them.
“Israel has shown that it’s happy to give up territory annexed in war in order to achieve peace. We gave up the Sinai, this beautiful desert, in order to achieve peace. But what sort of country gives up territory annexed in war and then some more just because another country wants it? This is blackmail, and it’s madness.”
Hadar interjects: “Why would we give a long-standing enemy access to a vital water supply?” She seems to be implying that Syria might abuse such an agreement by polluting or poisoning the Galilee from its eastern shore. I suggest Syria’s desire to access the Galilee probably has more to do with Turkey’s destructive damming of the Euphrates, which has resulted in severe water shortages in both Syria and Iraq.
Reuven dismisses us both. The Galilee is beside the point, he says. “I am sure they have demanded too much deliberately. They have asked for more than we can give them because they know that we won’t. It allows them to continue supporting Hezbollah, doing Iran’s bidding, and enjoying its favour. That ends when the pretext for hostility disappears.”
“Syria could have the Golan back if it wanted it,” Reuven concludes darkly. “But I don’t think it really wants it. The problem is not that Syria wants access to the Galilee, but that it wants and needs to keep fighting us. Peace with Israel is not in Syria’s best interest. The Golan Heights are a convenient excuse.”