The Lame Duck That Laid a Golden Egg - Part I

Israel's ever-floundering parliament managed to come through for the Golan. Referendum was the law. The groundwork had been laid a year earlier by a lame duck Knesset and a now-defunct secular, centrist political party.

Ellen W. Horowitz

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[Thanks to Moshe Burt and Nissan Ratzlav-Katz for providing both material and inspiration for the following two-part article.]

18 January 2000
President of Syria
Hafez Al Assad
c/o Syrian Embassy, Washington D.C.

Mr. President,

Re: Legal Considerations in Surrendering the Golan Heights

We, the elected representatives of the Golan Heights communities, write to you as the Israeli-Syrian negotiations are resuming. We feel that it is our duty to inform you that the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Ehud Barak, is not legally authorized to surrender any part of the Golan Heights....

...According to the Israeli Law and Order Act (5759-1999), the Government of Israel is forbidden to surrender a sovereign part of the State in which the law, jurisdiction and administration of the State was applied, without a majority vote of 61 Members of the Knesset, as well as a public referendum....

Cc: Prime Minister, Mr. Ehud Barak
President of U.S.A., Mr. Bill Clinton


It may be worth our while to take a trip down memory lane and examine events leading up to the-referendum-that-wasn't. It seems that a remarkable mix of public activism, legislative efforts and Divine intervention gummed-up a well-oiled Syrian track and prevented our (G-d forbid) retreat from the Golan Heights.

It was the Barak years (okay, he only lasted 18 months, but it seemed like years). Those heady days when the stench of Oslo once again permeated the air. Binyamin Netanyahu and his suffocating restraints, conditions and reciprocity mantra, which had kept terror in check and slowed the peace (sic) process to a crawl, were gone. The Arab world would once again be free to express itself in all of its gore and glory.

The local and international media were ecstatic. Time magazine was asking the very thought-provoking question, "Who is smarter, US President Bill Clinton or Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak?" James Carville, the man who, for the right price, can transform any mere political animal into the king of beasts, provided some insight: "Barak is probably the most unique person I've met in terms of his range of skills.... Clinton is brilliant, but nowhere near the mathematician or musician that Barak is.... Then again, the President has astonishing people skills."

December 15, 1999, was another Rose Garden moment. US President Clinton, flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk A-Shara, declared, "For the first time in history, there is a chance of a comprehensive peace between Israel and Syria, and indeed, all of its neighbors."

We were in the midst of the worst drought since the State of Israel's inception. The Kinneret had hit the red line and was sinking fast. With all the talk about "the depth of withdrawal equaling the depth of peace," I just figured that G-d in his mercy was reducing the depth and breadth of our national water supply in order to prevent the residents of the Golan communities from drowning should they be forced to come down from the Heights.

Statistically, it appeared that the country was split down the middle on the Golan issue. The notoriously inaccurate pollsters and press were having a field day, and creating the usual public anxiety and doubt that Israelis seems to crave - in a pathological sort of way.

An aggressive campaign was launched by the Golan settlers. Eli Malka, Chairman of the Golan Residents Committee, and others delivered passionate speeches: "If he [Barak] heard what we said, and if he does not have a heart of stone, then he will give up this terrible plan of dismantling communities, expelling citizens from their homes, endangering Israel's security, and losing our water sources."

The settlers were unyielding, obstinate and, at times, a bit provocative. But nobody dare accuse them of incitement, because the banner and bumper sticker campaign from the Rabin years, which proclaimed "The People are with the Golan", was indeed engraved upon the hearts of the people of Israel, and still glued fast to our cars and front doors. So, when the Washington Post quoted one uppity female Golan resident as saying, "I will try to make it so traumatic for the Israeli state that it will never again think of such a thing as evacuating Israelis from their houses," all of Israel understood her pain and stood with her. Even those on the political Left were empathetic and dared not criticize Israel's true pioneers.

Israel's ever-floundering parliament managed to come through for the Golan. Referendum was the law. The groundwork had been laid a year earlier by a lame duck Knesset and a now-defunct secular, centrist political party.

It was in days when rebels were rebels and there existed a rare, but now extinct, breed of Zionist bird known as "the Labor hawk". The Netanyahu government, which had been hounded by rebellion in the ranks, had been defeated and was preparing for new elections. But it seems that the lame-duck government was able to muster the strength to trumpet one very important quack in January of 1999.

It was known as the Golan/Kahalani Law and required that there be a national referendum on any government decision to withdraw from the Golan Heights. It also stipulated that a return of the Golan would have to be approved by at least 61 of the 120 members of the Knesset. It was backed by a stunning majority of 53 -30, which included members of the opposition Labor party (Ehud Barak among them).

The bill had been introduced by those remaining remnants of Labor Zionism who had rebelled against Prime Minster Yitzchak Rabin in 1995 over security and settlement issues. They were particularly concerned about Labor¹s policies vis-a-vis the security and settlements of the Golan Heights, Jordan Valley and Gaza Strip. Former general and war hero, Avigdor Kahalani, led the charge and formed a political movement with a very limited and focused platform, built largely around a single issue agenda - secure the future of the Golan Heights for Israel. The Third Way won a significant four seats in the 1996 elections. But the results of the1999 elections would relegate them to the dustbin of has-been political parties. However, they managed to fulfill their mission and set a precedent even as the sun was setting on Netanyahu's crumbling empire.

The moral of this story, as we will clearly see in Part II of this article, will be the following: Sometimes in the midst of seeming chaos and despair, what appear to be our futile efforts have an ultimate purpose and may serve us well in the future.

[Part 1 of 2]