Golan Heights, Shebaa Farms could unlock peace process for Israel, Syria and Lebanon

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — Any rapprochement between Israel and the Palestinians beyond a temporary ceasefire seems rather improbable at the moment. However, the Golan Heights’ and Shebaa Farms’ territories contested between Israel, Syria and Lebanon could spearhead a peace process in the Middle East now actively pursued by the Obama administration.

A peace agreement with Syria and Lebanon could energize the process and lead to peace in the region.

The Golan Heights, which was Syrian territory before Israel captured the region during the 1967 Six Day War, holds considerable strategic military importance in the region. In addition, whoever occupies it controls a large portion of water for the Jordan River watershed, which provides about 15 percent of Israel’s water supply.

While of significant historical importance to Syria, the Golan Heights has practical importance for Israel. Although both Syria and Israel now contest ownership of the area, they have not used overt military force against each other since 1974. In 1981, the area was annexed by Israel, a move condemned internationally and called “inadmissible” by the U.N. Security Council.

In 1999-2000, during the U.S.-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 withdraw this offer because of disagreements with Syria over access to the Sea of Galilee.

In 2006, the U.N. General Assembly called upon Israel to end its occupation of the Golan Heights, and declared all legislative and administrative measures taken by Israel in that area null and void. That decision was ignored by Israel.

Do these facts doom the possibility of Syria and Israel reaching an agreement? I don’t believe so.

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. 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.

Shebaa Farms is also captured during the 1967 Six Day War — when Lebanon was not an active participant in that war. Although Israel argues that Shebaa Farms is Syrian territory, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem in December reiterated Syria’s support for Lebanon’s ownership claim on the territory. He noted that Syria has refused to mark the boundaries between Syria and Lebanon until Israel fully withdraws its forces from the region.

Returning Shebaa Farms ownership to the Lebanese involves important concessions from all involved. For Israel, it means abandoning an important buffer zone of military and strategic importance on its northern front. For Syria, it means relinquishing any claims to ownership of that area. For Lebanon, it means it must reach a final agreement with Syria on specific border areas.

Still, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Eventual peace with Syria and Lebanon doesn’t mean that the Palestinian issue will be disregarded. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians remains at the core of the Middle East process, as has been stated by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But peace with Syria and Lebanon are significant steps that will completely change the dynamic of the process and lead to peace in that beleaguered region.

Cesar Chelala, a writer on human rights issues, is a cowinner of the Overseas Press Club of America award. He is the foreign correspondent for the Middle East Times International (Australia).