The Golan Gamble

Is a peace deal possible with Syria -- and is it worth the risk?

05lake (photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
(photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
Cover story in Issue 5, June 23, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A grandiose plan that would put an end to the acute water shortage plaguing Israel and its neighbors has been tossed onto the table as part of the tangle of fact and fiction, hype and spin, reality and fantasy, surrounding the dramatic late May announcement of the official renewal of Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations under Turkish mediation. All three sides are reportedly intrigued by the possibilities of the blueprint, based on an ambitious Turkish scheme first raised in the 1980s, dropped when Turkish-Syrian relations soured in the 1990s, and now resurrected and refined by an Israeli water engineer. The plan provides for the pumping of two to three billion cubic meters of water a year - more than the current total combined consumption of Israel and the Palestinian Authority - from two rivers, the Ceyhan and the Seyhan, in southeastern Turkey, for use in Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. The water would be channeled from Turkey, which enjoys a huge water surplus, in underground pipes and overland canals through western Syria to the southern slopes of Mount Hermon, where it would flow into a dam along the length of the northern stretch of a new Israeli-Syrian border, providing hydro-electric power and serving as a major obstacle against a tank blitz from the Golan Heights, which would be returned to Syria as part of the projected peace package. Some of the water en route would be diverted to Lebanon and water from the dam channeled to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. "Everybody wins," says the plan's author, water engineer Boaz Wachtel, an Israeli fellow at the Washington-based Freedom House, which promotes democracy, peace and human rights. "The Arabs and Israelis get water and stability, the Turks hard currency and enhanced international status." In late April, while former Foreign Ministry director general Alon Liel huddled over the blueprints of the plan with Turkish officials involved in the mediation effort, Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, was also looking them over. In Liel's view, the plan could be a major incentive for the sides to move ahead in the official negotiations, expected to start within the next few weeks. Syria's persistent attempt to divert water from the Jordan River was one of the main causes of the 1967 Six-Day War, in which it lost the Golan Heights to Israel. But Liel, who chairs the Israel-Syria Peace Society, says he recently received a message from "a very senior source" in Syria that water need no longer be a problem. After returning the Golan Heights, the source pledged, Israel would be able to make full use of Golan water, on condition that Syria gets a commensurate increase in its water allocation from Turkey, which at present comes only from the Euphrates. The Wachtel scheme more than makes up for any Syrian shortfall. "This is wonderful compared to the way we used to see the battle over water as a major strategic issue. Now it has been reduced to a matter of dollars and cents," Liel tells The Report. But the dream of peace with Syria with all its attendant benefits - Syria in the pro-Western Arab camp, freed from Iranian tutelage and no longer supporting Palestinian and Lebanese militants - is not universally shared. Israeli hawks, who oppose any withdrawal from the Golan, accuse Wachtel and Liel of living in a fantasy world - and the government of Ehud Olmert of playing dangerous games in its efforts to survive the corruption scandals engulfing the prime minister. There is, they say, no chance of Syria breaking away from the radical Iranian-led axis and handing over the Golan would simply be turning it into an Iranian forward base for attacking Israel. "All this talk about making peace and sharing water is pie in the sky," scoffs the Likud's Yisrael Katz, chairman of the Knesset's Golan caucus. On a sweltering Jerusalem afternoon in late May, just days after the announced resumption of peace talks, Katz convenes the caucus to make sure he has the votes to block any peace deal that entails a Golan withdrawal. About 30 Knesset members, including at least a dozen from the governing coalition, cram into a stuffy Knesset meeting room to express their support. Golan settler leaders have also come down for what they see as a decisive meeting. At the entrance, Golan Regional Council Chairman Eli Malka is overcome with emotion and has difficulty breathing. The Knesset doctor is summoned and rushes Malka to hospital, where he makes a quick recovery. In the crowded room, Katz counts heads. He notes that all seven Pensioners' Party Knesset members, including party leader Rafi Eitan - who has a daughter and three grandchildren living on the Golan - are paying rapt attention. He spots Zeev Elkin and Othniel Schneller of Olmert's Kadima whispering to Yoram Marciano of Labor. By Katz's arithmetic, he has the guaranteed support of the 50 Knesset members from the right-wing and religious parties. Add to that the seven Pensioners, at least another seven Kadima hawks and two or three Labor mavericks, and Katz reckons he has the power to block any peace treaty that calls for the handover of territory on the Golan. The lobby members file jubilantly out of the room, convinced that in the battle for the Golan they have the upper hand. "As a seasoned political campaigner, I can now say for sure that there is no majority in the Knesset for withdrawal from the Golan," Katz later declares in an interview with The Report. There are two relevant laws regarding the future of the Golan Heights, Katz notes: one annexing the Golan to Israel and another stipulating that Israeli territory can only be ceded with the support of 61 MKs (out of the total of 120). And if the Golan lobby can count on around 70 supporters, there is no way the government can muster even close to the 61 it would need. Knesset hawks are pursuing two other bits of legislation to make withdrawal from the Golan even harder. One is to raise the number of votes needed to cede territory from 61 to 80; the other is to lay down rules for a referendum. Katz, however, says that both initiatives are no longer necessary since he already has all he needs to prevent a pullback. Those who believe peace with Syria is possible and are ready to consider ceding the Golan hope that when the new regional order it entails becomes clear, many of the skeptics will be won over. If the choice becomes one of keeping the Golan versus moving Syria into the pro-Western orbit, isolating Iran, weakening Hizballah and Hamas, stabilizing Lebanon and solving regional water problems, they believe, the vast majority of Israelis will come down on the side of the new order. The big question is: Will the Syrians really break with the Iranian axis? On the face of it, they would have much to gain by doing so. With oil reserves dwindling and prices of basic commodities rising, the Syrian economy is in poor shape. At the beginning of the decade, oil revenues accounted for 70 percent of the Syrian budget; the figure today is just 20 percent. An influx of Western investment could turn things round. Already, simply renewing talks with Israel is paying handsome diplomatic dividends. For years Syria had been shunned by most of the international community and the Arab world. Now President Bashar Asad is about to embark on a tour of moderate Gulf states and Arab League Chairman Amr Moussa is talking about the need to improve ties with Damascus. More importantly, signaling an impending thaw in European attitudes, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who just a few months ago ordered a freeze on all contacts with Syria, phoned Asad in late May to welcome the renewal of peace talks and to invite the Syrian leader to a summit of Mediterranean countries in Paris in July. The manner in which negotiations were renewed also suggests a degree of seriousness on the part of Syria. Indeed, it was the Syrians who initiated the resumption. In January 2004, Asad, on a first-ever state visit of a Syrian president to Turkey, urged Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to help him renew contacts with Israel, broken off in anger by Asad's late father Hafiz four years earlier. Former Turkish ambassador to Israel Feridun Siniroglu - one of the key figures in the current mediation process - approached Liel, who had served as Israel's chargé d'affaires in Ankara, to test the waters. But then-prime minister Ariel Sharon was not interested. Focused on his planned disengagement from Gaza, Sharon did not want to do anything that might anger U.S. President George W. Bush, who was livid at Asad for allowing al-Qaeda and other terrorists to infiltrate neighboring Iraq and harass American forces there. Moreover, Sharon was convinced that Asad only wanted talks to relieve Western pressure on Syria and was not really interested in a peace settlement. The upshot was an unofficial back channel, with Liel and the hawkish former deputy Mossad chief Uzi Arad on the Israeli side, and Abe Suleiman, a close confidant of Asad's, resident in the United States, speaking for Syria. The effort lasted for over two years, first with Turkish and then Swiss mediation, but failed to produce a breakthrough. The turnaround came in February last year, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Ankara. Erdogan, at Syria's behest, again offered Turkey's good offices, this time for an official channel. Olmert agreed. Liel says the fact that the Syrians refused to let go for four and half years despite official Israeli indifference shows just how determined they are. "The fact that there has been a four-and-a-half-year ripening process indicates that something very fundamental is going on here," he declares. For much of that time, though, there were vastly differing assessments of Syrian intentions within the Israeli intelligence community. The Mossad concurred with Sharon that the Syrians only wanted negotiations to alleviate international pressure; in contrast, Military Intelligence estimated that Damascus might genuinely be thinking in terms of peace with Israel. Now both agencies agree that the Syrian track is worth exploring. For the past 15 months, Olmert aides Yoram Turbowitz and Shalom Turgeman have been doing just that through an intensive series of proximity talks - Israeli and Syrian negotiators in the same building, but not in the same room, and Turkish mediators moving between them - in Turkey. According to the Syrians, significant progress has already been made. Most importantly, they say, Israel has reaffirmed the so-called "Rabin pocket," former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's hypothetical 1993 commitment to withdraw from the Golan Heights to the pre-1967 Six-Day War borders if Israel's demands on security and peace are met. Israeli officials prefer to be less explicit. They say the best summary of the state of the talks so far is in Olmert's public statement in early May that "the Syrians know what we want and we know what they want." The implication is if the parties have entered negotiations on this basis, each side must be reasonably confident that the other is prepared to meet its minimal conditions - reorientation of Syria's regional policy and Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 lines. Indeed, when the last serious Israeli-Syrian peace effort broke down in 2000, the two sides seemed close to a deal. Former military intelligence chief Uri Sagie, who led the Israeli team on the territorial issue, says the concept of withdrawal to the June 4 lines was agreed upon in principle. The problem was establishing where those lines were. In talks leading up to the crucial meeting at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in January 2000, Sagie suggested a line reflecting actual Syrian troop positions on June 4, the day before the war broke out. At Shepherdstown, the two sides went one step further, agreeing to set up a joint "border demarcation committee" to reconstruct the June 4 situation on the ground. Israel had begun the negotiations insisting on the 1923 international border between French mandatory Syria and British mandatory Palestine. But at some points, that line is no more that 10 meters from Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), Israel's most important water resource. Therefore, the Israelis were later happy to go along with the Syrian demand for the June 4 border, confident that this would put the line several hundred meters east of the Kinneret. For then-prime minister Ehud Barak, the key was a border that would leave no room for doubt about exclusive Israeli sovereignty over the entire lake. In a meeting with U.S. special envoy Dennis Ross, Barak drew a bold line on the 1923 map, pushing the border back about 400 meters (see map, page 11). The plan at Shepherdstown was to enshrine the principle of June 4, as the Syrians wanted, and then have the demarcation team draw the line far enough from the water to satisfy the Israelis. According to American accounts, the talks failed mainly because Barak got cold feet, after receiving the results of a public opinion poll indicating considerable opposition to a deal entailing withdrawal from the Golan. He decided to slow things down to give the impression that he was not giving away major Israeli assets easily. Next, an American bridging proposal, which gave the false impression that the Syrians had been more accommodating than Israel, was leaked to the Israeli press. The Syrians felt they had been taken for a ride and the talks broke down. Two and a half months later, an attempt by president Bill Clinton to revive the process at a summit with Hafiz Asad in Geneva also failed. The Americans arrived with maps showing three alternative border lines, hoping to close a deal. But by now the ailing Syrian leader no longer trusted Barak and had lost interest in the process. As soon as Clinton mentioned that the Israeli prime minister wanted a line a few hundred meters from the shore, Asad fired back an outlandish deal-breaking claim the Syrians had never made before: that the Kinneret was at least half Syrian. Still, the talks seemed to have foundered more over leadership quirks than over substance. Indeed, before the breakdown of trust, negotiators on both sides were confident a deal could be reached. There was a smart formula for resolving the border differences and the parties were also reasonably close on all the other core issues. On security arrangements, the Syrians agreed to demilitarization on both sides of the border at a ratio of two to one in Israel's favor, and to an early warning station on Mount Hermon without an Israeli presence; Israel wanted a demilitarization ratio of four to one, and a small Israeli presence in the early warning station. On peace, Israel wanted an exchange of ambassadors after a first partial pullback on the Golan; Syria only after full Israeli withdrawal. Israel wanted a three-year timetable for implementation; Syria 18 months. Indeed, if all the parties had to do was to pick up from where they left off at Shepherdstown, the prospects for a deal would be bright. The border issue could actually be easier to resolve, as the waters of the Kinneret have receded significantly westward in the interim. The big stumbling block is that the regional dimensions of the Israel-Syria equation have changed dramatically since 2000. The Syrian alliance with Iran is much deeper than it was and U.S. readiness to underwrite an Israel-Syria peace deal is much diminished. Neither factor bodes well: If the United States does not make it worth Syria's while, it will not detach itself from the Iranian axis; and if Syria does not break with Iran, Israel is unlikely to sign a peace deal that entails returning the Golan. When it comes to the big regional picture, Israeli experts are divided. Dan Schueftan, a senior fellow at Haifa University's National Security Studies Center, argues that Syria is intrinsically radical and will never leave the Iranian axis, irrespective of what the Americans might offer. He notes that over the past several decades, Syria has invariably chosen the radical path. It did not join the Sadat peace initiative in the late 1970s; it backed Iran in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s; it did not move closer to the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s; and over the past decade it has gravitated towards Iran. "Radicalism is not one of the options for Syria. It is the essence of what the Syrian regime is all about," Schueftan asserts. And that, in his view, is not about to change. "If Syria was prepared to remain weak, poor and defenseless for decades to preserve its radical policies, it won't suddenly diverge from them just for the Golan," he declares. According to Schueftan, all the evidence points to the fact that the Syrians have no intention of breaking with Iran. They wouldn't be arming Hizballah, helping Iran make connections with Hamas or have undertaken a costly nuclear weapons' project if they were considering alignment with the West, he argues. Moreover, he asks, why would Syria desert the radical camp just when it seems to be gaining in stature and influence? "The Syrian regime has waited 30 years for things to move in this direction, and to assume that now that everything is going its way, it's going to change course is ludicrous," he declares. Schueftan further argues that it was a big mistake even to begin negotiations with the Syrians because it will give them free rein in Lebanon. "Under cover of talks with Israel, they will be able to step up their brutal policies in Lebanon, and no one will say a word," he contends. Other analysts are less certain. Hebrew University Syria expert Moshe Maoz maintains that ideally Asad would like the best of both worlds, able to move freely between the West and Iran, with a foot in both camps. But if he has to choose between the moderate pro-Western Sunni and the radical pro-Iranian Shi'ite coalitions, Maoz believes Asad will choose the Sunnis, partly because of the promise of economic aid from the U.S., Europe and the wealthy Gulf states, and partly because, with a population that is 75 percent Sunni, Syria sees itself as a leading player in the Sunni-Arab rather than the Shi'ite-Farsi world. "The Asad administration is already concerned about the depth of Shi'ite economic, religious and cultural influence in Syria. Their worst nightmare is to find themselves sandwiched between Shi'ite-dominated regimes in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, which could have a subversive effect on secular Syria," he avers. But Maoz is convinced that the Syrians will not move away from Iran, unless they are guaranteed American support. "If the Syrian move leads to tension with Iran, they will want American backing. That is at the heart of their strategic thinking. They don't want a situation in which they are left high and dry by both sides," he says. Liel, who has been in constant touch with Syrian and Turkish players over the past four and a half years, is more upbeat. He argues that if leaving the radical axis were not an option for the Syrians, they wouldn't have started the process in the first place. "Why would they risk (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad's wrath if there was no readiness on their part to consider change on a wider scale?" he challenges. Moreover, Liel notes, the joint statement announcing the resumption of talks refers to a "comprehensive peace," implying a fundamental change in regional alignments at the end of the process. In Liel's view, the Syrian track offers the only chance for a significant peace breakthrough and could help break what he sees as the deadlock on the Palestinian front, by forcing Hamas to soften its hardline attitudes. "Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal can't sit in Damascus taking advantage of Syrian hospitality and ignore the fact that his hosts are changing the tenor of their relations with Israel. The Iranians will also have to take this into account. All of which means that the very renewal of talks is a factor that will influence other parts of the regional system," he maintains. Liel also suggests that progress on the Syrian track could have a major impact on one of the toughest issues in the Palestinian process - refugees. "There are almost 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria. If we reach a peace deal with Syria, maybe it will grant them citizenship. And that could force Lebanon, where there are 300,000 refugees, to follow suit," he conjectures. But like Maoz, Liel is convinced that major regional change will not occur without the Americans. "We could wrap up the bilateral issues between us and Syria in the next few weeks or months. Much has already been agreed. But we won't be able to close on the Western alternative to Iran without the Americans," he observes. But here, too, Liel is optimistic, pointing to signs of change in Washington. "There are forces in the State Department, Pentagon, Congress, and certainly in the Democratic Party, pushing for America to join the process. I think Bush is quite isolated on this," he contends. Israeli hawks counter that not only is regional change unlikely but that Syria has nothing to offer. "There is no demographic problem on the Golan, the Syrians are not in a position to make war on Israel, nor can they eradicate the Hizballah threat in Lebanon the way they could have done in 2000," says Katz. "I asked all the senior people in the defense establishment whether there is a scenario in which we sign with the Syrians and they put an end to terrorist activity from Lebanon. The answer was no. In other words, we would be giving back the Golan and leaving Hizballah with enough shells and rockets for the next 30 years." The outcome of negotiations with Syria as well as the fate of Wachtel's ambitious water scheme could depend on the results of the next Israeli election. With Olmert wobbling over corruption allegations, pundits are talking about a November ballot, with the Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes territorial compromise with Syria, the front-runner according to public opinion polls. In late May, Netanyahu pays a solidarity visit to the Golan, vowing never to give it back. Although documents from secret negotiations he held with the Syrians when he was prime minister in the late 1990s suggest that he agreed to the June 4 borders, Netanyahu insists that he never did. More importantly, he now says he won't. On the windswept heights near Katzrin, surrounded by settlers chanting slogans calling him "the next prime minister of Israel," Netanyahu makes it clear that he intends to use his opposition to the Syrian track as a vote-winner. "I think the best way to protect the Golan and the Jordan Valley is to go for new elections. If someone says to us that for peace we must leave the Golan, we say we are not going to leave the Golan. The Golan will not be abandoned," he declares. • Cover story in Issue 5, June 23, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.