Two states, which have been formally in state of war since the so-called Six-Day War in 1967, restored indirect peace negotiations headed by Turkey, which has strived to act as a catalyst for peace in the Middle East for a long time. It was not until May 2008 that all sides confirmed officially this message, although negotiations had already been under way for several months by that time (1). Israeli occupation of the strategic territory of the Golan Heights following the defeat of Syria, Egypt and Jordan amounts to a bone of contention between Israel and Syria. Syrian soldiers have sniped at northern Israel from the Golan Heights since 1948 when Syria joined Arab countries that didn’t recognise the origin of Jewish state.
In the past, both sides pursued a cessation of the state of war, for instance, at the International Peace Conference in Madrid in 1991, in Washington in 1994 and also during the period 1999 – 2000. Nevertheless, all these efforts have failed so far. The main obstacle to the agreement is the Syrian condition pertaining to the withdrawal of Israel from the Golan Heights annexed formally in 1981. However, the annexation was recognised neither by any country nor by the UN. Last peace talks were interrupted eight years ago when Damask refused Israel’s offer of withdrawing its troops from a larger part of the Golan Heights, but not from the entire occupied territory. Israel wasn’t willing to give up control over the Galilea Lake which covers nearly a third of its drinking water consumption.
At the Annapolis Conference in November 2007, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged negotiations about the withdrawal from the Golan Heights to Syria. However, like many times in the past, he at the same time set security guarantees as the condition for negotiations – Syrian regime was supposed to dissociate itself from Iran, terminate the support of military groups in Lebanon and Palestine the aim of which was to destroy Israel, solve the issue of access to water sources, restore diplomatic ties and open the borders. (2)
Also today Olmert attempts to repeat the barter by means of which he restored peace with Egypt in 1978 in exchange for the return of the Sinai Peninsula. Nonetheless, in the case of Syria, in the foreground won’t be just a compromise with Syrian government, but mainly the acquisition of the support of Israeli Parliament and people since their reaction was overwhelmingly negative. The absolute majority of 61 members of the Israeli Parliament Knesset signed a petition against the return of the Golan Heights immediately after the announcement of negotiations. In an April opinion poll conducted by the institute Dafah as many as 68 per cent of citizens were against and also the representatives of 33 Jewish settlements on the Golan Heights inhabited by more than 16,000 Israelis voiced a strong disapproval. According to these representatives Olmert endangers national interests and the country’s security by negotiating with Syria and therefore he should hand in his resignation instantly. “A prime minister, who is ready to yield up a region under Israeli rule and give it to the Syrians and the Iranians, menaces the future of Israeli state,” said the President of the Council of Jewish Settlements in the Golan Heights Elia Malka. (3)
Intriguing, however, are the impulses behind this generosity of Olmert’s. Yet in November 2006, Ehud Olmert said that as long as he was the prime minister, the Golan Heights would remain in Israel’s hands as an integral part of state territory (4). Nowadays, the Israeli PM is accused of accepting bribes and embezzlement and he is sure to hold the post of the Chairperson of the right party Kadima solely till party primaries scheduled for 17th September, 2008, after which he is very likely to be substituted either by the current Foreign Affairs Minister Cipi Livin or the Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz. (5) Through peace talks with Syria and Hezbollah Olmert tries to divert attention away from his corruption affair, redeem his image and avert the decrease in preferences. However, he seems to be failing.
Possible peace would be more advantageous for Syria than for Israel because Syria is weak from the military point of view and it also doesn’t endanger Israel. Even from the economic point of view, Damask has just a little to offer. To the contrary, Syria hopes that peace with Israel and the exclusion from the so-called “Axis of Evil” will ensure economic advantages and the influx of western investments for it irrespective of the fact that the White House has adopted a cool posture on the announcement of the launch of negotiations and concentrates rather on negotiations with the Palestinians. After the end of President Bush’s term of office, however, Washington’s stance is likely to change.
In Syrian case the greatest achievement for Israel would be Damask stopping the support of Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas. This, however, seems improbable at present and it could instigate further radicalisation of these groups. Simultaneously, Tel Aviv would be rid of the issue of Shebaa farms shifting it onto Damask. The subject matter are border areas among Syria, Lebanon and Israel occupied by Syria in the past. Syria hasn’t recognised the existence of Lebanese state, although French mandate administration allotted the ground to the Lebanese. Israel annexed these territories alongside the Golan Heights during the Six-Day War on Egypt and Syria in 1967. Following Lebanese withdrawal, Israel declined to surrender this territory to Lebanese state on the pretext that it had belonged to Syria prior to its occupation. The disputed territory of fourteen farms lying south of the Lebanese village of Shebaa, where grain, fruit and vegetables are grown, stretches on the area of approximately forty square kilometres, but it’s strategic owing to suitable sources as well as from the military point of view as the region is situated at an altitude of 1,900 metres. In the past, Syria and Lebanon as well as the UN appealed repeatedly for the return of the territory (resolutions 242 and 425). Syria upheld Beirut’s demands for the reason that it’s Lebanese territory. Nevertheless, it still hasn’t been maintaining any diplomatic links with Lebanon and hasn’t officially recognised its existence. The territory of Shebaa farms is still on Syrian map which has been released on the official website of the Tourism Ministry (6). If Syria doesn’t return this territory to Lebanon, Hezbollah’s weapons could theoretically turn against it – it’s the liberation of this region which Hezbollah sets as a condition for disarmament.
Nowadays, it seems that the representatives of both sides agreed solely on the need of further negotiations planned for next months as well as its transformation from indirect to direct ones.
From the viewpoint of Israel, more important is presently the May agreement on the reconciliation of the Lebanese pro-western Government of Fouad Siniora and Hezbollah, whose position has been considerably reinforced by gaining veto right within the decision-making process of the new interim government. In the end, the government was formed on 11th July after several weeks of failed negotiations about ministerial posts. It’s comprised of sixteen ministers from pro-western “14th March Forces”, eleven ministers from the Hezbollah-Amal bloc and three ministers designated by new President Michel Suleiman. This make-up of the new Government of Unity should administer Lebanon till the 2009 parliamentary elections (7). The position of the bloc Hezbollah-Amal has been markedly strengthened after the conclusion of the Doha Agreement and the constitution of the new government because all cabinet’s decisions as for key questions require the consent of twenty out of the total number of thirty ministers, i.e. Hezbollah’s and Amal’s consent too.
In the middle of July, Israel acceded to the exchange of Lebanese captives, even the terrorist Samir Kantar, for the remains of two soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah two years ago. At present, it offers peace talks to PM Fouad Siniora and the withdrawal from the border farms Shebaa to Hezbollah. These steps mean that Israel is certainly in quest for the enfeeblement of Hezbollah’s position which has been strengthening since the 2006 Summer War unleashed right by the kidnapping of two soldiers. All the concessions are interpreted by the Lebanese as well as Israeli Opposition as Hezbollah’s definitive victory. Anyway, withdrawing from the territory in Syrian-Lebanese border area Israel would rid Hezbollah of the only official reason for the existence of its militant troops. For Israel, Hezbollah’s disarmament, which was partially augured by the Doha Agreement that determined the obligation to negotiate about this question under President Suleiman’s leadership, would mean the removal of most probably the biggest security threat.
(1) Reprise des négociations entre Israël et la Syrie via la Turquie. LeMonde, 21. 5. 2008.
(2) Barak, Ravid: Israel, Syria message exchange ends in failure. Haaretz. 22. 12. 2007.
(3) Haaretz, 21. 5. 2008
(4) Derfner, Larry: Rattling the Cage: Why Israel must talk to Syria. The Jerusalem Post. 8. 11. 2006.
(5) See Mózová, K.: Hezbollah has shuffled the cards in Lebanon game. 29th June, 2008
(7) Liban: formation d’un gouvernement d’union nationale. LeMonde, 11. 7. 2008.