NEW YORK: The Golan Heights, an area of roughly 690 square miles bordering Syria, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan could hold the key to peace in the Middle East. Recent events in Israel and Gaza make any rapprochement between Israel and the Palestinians beyond a ceasefire rather improbable at the moment. Peace talks with Syria could energize the process and lead to an all-encompassing peace agreement in the region.
The Golan Heights, which was Syrian territory before Israel captured the region during the 1967 Six-Day War, holds considerable strategic importance. Keeping control over this territory, however, isn’t a prerequisite for Israel’s self-defense from attack. In 2004, Israel’s then Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen Moshe Ya’alon stated, that if the government decided to reach a peace agreement with Syria, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) could defend Israel without the Golan Heights.
In addition to its military importance, the Golan Heights controls a large portion of water in the Jordan River watershed which provides about 15 percent of Israel’s water supply. Thus while of significant historical importance to Syria, the Heights also has practical importance for Israel.
Although both Syria and Israel now contest the ownership of the area, they have not used overt military force since 1974. In 1981, the area was annexed by Israel, a move that was condemned internationally and called “inadmissible by the UN Security Council. In 1999-2000, during the US-brokered peace talks, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to withdraw from most of the Golan Heights as part of a comprehensive peace and security agreement. Barak withdrew this offer because of disagreements with Syria on access to the Sea of Galilee.
In 2006, the United Nations General Assembly called upon Israel to end its occupation of the Golan Heights, and declared all the legislative and administrative measures taken by Israel in that area null and void. That decision was ignored by Israel. In 2008, leaders of communities in the Golan Heights reaffirmed Israel’s ownership of the area and stated, “all construction and development projects in the Golan are going ahead as planned, propelled by the certainty that any attempt to harm Israeli sovereignty in the Golan will cause severe damage to state security and thus is doomed to fail.
Do all these facts condemn the possibility of reaching an agreement between Syria and Israel? I don’t believe so. After all, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu all saw the importance of achieving peace with Syria. Syria’s president Bashar Al-Assad has clearly stated, “If the Israelis withdraw from the Golan we will recognize them, and said that the United States should be the ‘main arbiter’ in this process.
The Golan Heights could become a ‘neutral’ area through the creation of a jointly administered peace park. This could be a practical example of a dispute-resolution strategy known as environmental peace building. According to Saleem H. Ali and Michael Cohen, the proposal was based on Robin Twite’s work at the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information during the 1990s. The plan establishes that Syria would be the sovereign nation in all of the Golan, but Israelis could visit the park freely, without the need for visas. The territory on both sides of the border could be demilitarized under international supervision.
There are obvious advantages for both Syria and Israel in reaching a peace agreement. Syria desperately needs economic development and an agreement with Israel on the Golan Heights could diminish its considerable military needs. Israel could have peace with an important adversary, a process that could be followed by a formal peace with Lebanon.
Peace with Syria doesn’t mean disregarding the Palestinian issue. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians remains at the core of the Middle East process. But peace with Syria is a significant first step that will completely change the dynamic of the process and make it more attainable than what it is now.
Cesar Chelala, a writer on human rights issues, is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award. He is the foreign correspondent for the Middle East Times International (Australia). This article is reproduced by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author. This commentary was first published by The Middle East Times International (Australia).