Israel Studies 7.1 (2002) 168-194
[Access article in PDF]
Israel's Capture of the Golan Heights
Syria never recovered from the trauma of the Six-Day War. To this day, its defeat on the battlefield and the loss of the Golan Heights remain open wounds. A formative event in the history of the Syrian state, this chapter of Syrian history informs also the personal and political biography of its leaders. Hafiz al-Asad himself, president of Syria for the last thirty years (1970-2000), was serving at the time as Minister of Defense.
Asad was thirty-seven years old and at the start of his political career when the war broke out. It was a baptism of fire. British journalist Patrick Seale, close confidant and biographer of the Syrian president, had the following to say about Asad the man and his policy from that point on:
The importance of this moment of national ruin in Asad's career cannot be overestimated. Without a doubt, the defeat was the decisive turning point in his life, jolting him into political maturity and spurring the ambition to rule Syria free from the constraints of colleagues and rivals who he felt had led the country to disaster. 1
. . . [After the war] Asad was in the grip of an obsession. . . . He longed to wipe away the stain of defeat which had affected him personally and profoundly, restore the confidence of his troops, recover the land, and show the world that, given a chance, the Arabs could acquit themselves honorably. 2
In Israel too, the battles on the Golan front of the Six-Day War are still a subject of great interest and sensitivity. Attesting to this was the public debate in Israel in April 1997 that followed publication of an interview with Moshe Dayan, Minister of Defense during the Six-Day War. 3 In this interview, given over twenty years ago, but first published only in April 1997, Dayan called his decision to capture the Golan Heights on the final day of the war one of the worst mistakes of his political career: "[The capture of the Golan Heights] was unnecessary. Look, we can speak in terms of [End Page 168] 'the Syrians are scoundrels, they should be screwed, now's the time' and so forth, but this is not policy. You don't screw the enemy because he's a scoundrel but because he threatens you, and the Syrians on the fourth day of the war were no threat to us."
Dayan attributed the Israeli decision to attack the Golan Heights to political pressures exerted by settlers of Israel's Jordan Valley, especially on then Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who himself hailed from Degania (a kibbutz located south of the Sea of Galilee). These settlers were motivated, according to Dayan, by narrow considerations: "The delegation (of settlers) that came to convince Eshkol to attack the Heights . . . thought about the land on the Heights. . . . They did not even try to hide their greed for that land. That's what guided them."
In the interview, Dayan also touched on the gradual deterioration of the situation on the Israeli-Syrian border in the early 1960s, which ultimately led to the outbreak of the war. Surprisingly, he placed most of the blame on the Israeli side:
I know how at least 80 per cent of the incidents began there . . . It would happen like this: We would send a tractor to plow someplace where nothing could be done, in the demilitarized zone, knowing ahead of time that the Syrians would start shooting. If they didn't shoot, we would tell the tractor to go on, until the Syrians got annoyed and [began] shooting. Then we would activate the artillery and later also the airforce . . . I did this, and so did Laskov and Chera [respectively, Major Generals Haim Laskov and Tzvi Tzur, Rabin's predecessors as Chief of Staff]. Yitzhak Rabin did it when he was there in the early sixties. But it seems to me that Dado [Lt. Gen. David Elazar, GOC Northern Command during the Six...