News From the Muddled East

05/04/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I first visited the Golan Heights as a reporter a few weeks after Israel captured it in 1967 and walked through the rubble of what remained of the Syrian army, I could not imagine that 42 years later, the territory would still be central to a solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But to read the latest account by Seymour Hersh of conversations he had about the Golan in Damascus, Washington, Istanbul and even the Persian Gulf, it is impossible to escape the impression that while there's a glimmer of hope, the prospect for peace in the Middle East still is as muddled as ever.

Writing in the latest issue (April 6) of The New Yorker, Hersh discloses serious conversations he has had with Bashir Assad, the president of Syria, and a shadowy world of diplomats, former diplomats, politicians, intelligence officers and government officials he quotes off the record.

Hersh is a skilled investigative journalist. From what he reports, the path to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian mess, easing America's prolonged tension with Syria and Iran and the prospect of an overall regional peace agreement may depend on the fate and future of the Golan Heights. The problem is complicated by the pain of the past. Neither Israelis or Syrians are able to forget what one side did to the other historically. For years before the 1967 War began, Israeli kibbutzniks lived beneath the shadow and terror of Syrian artillery and mortar barrages.

The Syrians consider the continued occupation of the Golan Heights a humiliation that can only be ended by an Israeli withdrawal. According to Hersh, only then would Assad be willing to negotiate some agreement, perhaps enabling the Israelis to remain on the Golan Heights under the Syrian flag. Four hundred and fifty square miles of the territory is rich in Biblical history and, crucially, water," says Hersh. But in the wake of the '67 War, "Syria was left with no access to the Sea of Galilee or the upper Jordan River. Roughly twenty-thousand Israeli settlers live in the Golan now." They have built towns, vineyards, cattle ranches and boutique hotels in its valleys and ski resorts on its strategic heights. It would require a miracle to convince those people to leave the land they have developed for so long.

Resolution of the Golan Heights problem could lead to a settlement of other thorny issues that are part of the Middle East process, according to Hersh. He confirms what other visitors to Damascus, including Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have said recently: Syria is anxious to engage with the West. That could have an impact on Damascus' support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip and even on Iran's hostility toward the United States and, just possibly, Israel.

The process may be initiated by special envoy, George Mitchell. Ultimately, an agreement would have to be signed off by President Obama. But his power to negotiate will depend on the Israeli prime minister's willingness to compromise. Given Benjamin Netanyahu's history and language, it's difficult to imagine him fostering peaceful relations with the Syrians, the Palestinians or the mullahs in Iran. The inclusion of an Arab-hating politician in his cabinet as foreign minister most assuredly will be a red flag to any country in the world of Israel's enemies.

The Golan Heights is far away, but the president's announcement this week of a new aid package for Pakistan, partially designed to foster better relations with India, and damp down their historic conflict over Kashmir reminded me of a summer day in 1965 when I was having lunch in Saigon with Frank Stanton, the retired president of CBS. Our bureau chief rushed up to me and said I had to fly to New Delhi immediately to coordinate coverage of the latest Indo-Pakistani war over Kashmir. I explained that I did not have enough cash available to make the trip, but Stanton reached into his pocket and quickly gave me ten crisp $100 bills. A month later, I received a message from the network's business manager asking me to explain a napkin he had received from Stanton that had my signature and a notation on it that said, "I owe Frank Stanton $1,000." The debt was settled quickly, but the war between India and Pakistan has dragged on into its 60th year.

The lesson of these two disconnected stories about the Golan Heights and Kashmir is the need for patience. Americans rarely understand that disputes or wars over land are most often resolved over long periods of time and rarely are settled quickly. Barack Obama understands this. Patience and compromise are two of his strongest suits. Sometimes they work and sometimes they do not, but hardly ever with the snap of a finger.