The Noisy Season

Two years ago Yoav Tsur got a bullet in the mail from Israeli extremists. "You dirty traitor," said the note that came with it. "We'll get you." But they haven't yet. Tsur, who first settled in the Golan Heights 21 years ago, still campaigns to give the captured territory back to Syria for a fair peace. He's motivated, in part, by another bullet: Tsur was at a Tel Aviv peace rally in 1995 when a Jewish right-wing fanatic assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. "That's when I promised myself I wouldn't be quiet anymore," says Tsur, 45, who runs a wind-turbine farm on the Golan. "We won't leave the streets to the rightists. We're not going to be quiet anymore."

It's the noisy season again in Israel. At a mass demonstration in Tel Aviv last week more than 100,000 people protested any peace deal that would relinquish the Golan Heights to Syria. Activists have plastered on Israeli cars tens of thousands of stickers that read the people are with the Golan. And political banners hang from apartment windows across the country. With Israeli-Syrian peace talks resuming next week in the United States, some Israelis wonder how far the arguments will go. Just last week, as Tsur was sitting in his office, three men in a dark sedan pulled up and yelled angry taunts at him. "In these arguments, the tones go higher and higher and nobody really listens," he says.

Will bullets fly again? Despite some threats and harsh language, many Israelis doubt it. That's partly because polls show the country almost evenly split on Golan peace. In those circumstances, extremism is bad policy. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of last week's demonstration was just how peaceful it was. The protesters made a reasoned argument: that a land-for-peace deal would undermine Israel's security, and that Syria couldn't be trusted. "This isn't peace between Holland and Sweden," says David Alin, a Golan beekeeper who wants to stay put.

Yet most of the Golan's 17,000 settlers voted for Ehud Barak to become prime minister last May--knowing full well that he planned to cut a deal with Syria. (They're a different breed from West Bank settlers, many of whom view the occupied areas as a gift from God.) Secular Zionists largely seem willing to trust Barak to protect Israel's strategic interests, perhaps by insisting on early-warning stations in the Golan and by cutting a deal to ensure Israel's continued water supply from the area. When talks resume this week, negotiators will also haggle over whether Syria should regain all of the land it lost in 1967, an area that extends to the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. Israel may insist that the frontier revert to the international line as it was in 1923, which doesn't reach the water's edge. Barak may also argue that settlers be allowed to remain after a military withdrawal.

For a lot of Israelis, the stakes aren't so stark. Tens of thousands this month packed the ski slopes on Mount Hermon, the high point of the Golan, to enjoy what could be their last season of skiing in Israel. Others flocked to the Roman hot springs at Hamat Gader. "Enough people have died already," said Dvir Egdal, a goateed 21-year-old toweling off poolside. Peace, he said, "takes sacrifices." Some small, and some large.