As Israelis Debate The Fate Of The Golan...;...Skiers And Investors Flock To Its Slopes

Progress in the peace talks with the Palestinians and the Jordanians has focused attention on the Golan Heights, the strikingly beautiful 1,176-square-kilometer strip of high ground seized by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War. U.S. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher has been shuttling between Jerusalem and Damascus to help bridge the gap between the positions of the two longtime enemies.

Visitors to Israel can't help but notice bumper stickers and billboards calling for retention of the Golan Heights. The Golan, which overlooks the Sea of Galilee and much of northern Israel, is considered strategically important for Israel's security.

Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad is demanding a complete withdrawal from the Golan, but Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has made it clear that the extent and timetable of withdrawal will depend on Syria's acceptance of total peace.

Israel's once-solid national consensus on keeping the Golan has been wavering in recent months. But the 13,000 Israelis who call the Golan home have been conducting an extremely vocal campaign against giving it back.

And despite talk of withdrawal from the Golan, Israeli investment continues. More than $3.5 million is being invested in two small industrial parks. But that is a trifle compared with the hundreds of millions that were plowed into development of the West Bank by the former Likud government.

At Katzrin, Eden Water Ltd., Israel's largest mineral-water plant, is growing. The water is bottled from a spring near the town. Eden, whose shares are traded on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, reported sales of $17.5 million last year. Demand has been rising, and the company is in the midst of a $2 million expansion.

Not far from the mineral-water plant is one of the region's most ambitious projects, the Golan Heights Winery. It produces 26 bottlings under three labels: top-of-the-line Yarden, mid-range Gamla, and least-expensive Golan.

The winery opened in 1983 and is the most successful in Israel, having won more than a dozen international awards. "It's the only serious winery in Israel," says Manhattan-based wine writer Christopher Nossiter. "Its loss would be a serious blow."

This year, the winery expects to sell 2.4 million bottles for $9 million. About a quarter of the sales are exports, with the U.S. the largest market. The company isn't looking for an alternative site yet, though it has planted 10 hectares of grapes in the Upper Galilee. It has had luck there with only one of the 12 types that grow on the Golan. Meanwhile, the winery is in the midst of a $5 million expansion to increase production by 50%. "As long as the future of the Golan is unclear, we'll act as if we are staying here," says a winery executive.

It's hardly St. Moritz or Aspen, but Neve Ativ is a thriving ski resort. Located on the western slopes of Israel's Mount Hermon, the ski runs are only a mere 35 kilometers or so from downtown Damascus.

The season is short, lasting no more than three months a year, on average. Thousands of Israeli ski buffs, however, have turned the glistening slopes into quite a profitable venture for Neve Ativ. Mount Hermon Ltd., the company that operates the site, is investing $2.5 million in new chair lifts and runs. And downhill at Neve Ativ, $6.5 million will be going into a project that will include new restaurants, a pub, a health spa, an outdoor swimming pool, and 44 chalets.

The debate over the future ownership of the Golan Heights is expected to continue in the weeks ahead. Meanwhile, despite the downbeat mood in Israel, preparations for this winter's ski season are well under way. There is guarded optimism that the slope will stay in Israel. Says Eli Sagron, general manager of Mount Hermon Ltd.: "Giving up Israel's only ski resort is secondary when compared to the importance of the Golan to the country's security."

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