News Analysis: Israel, Syria Far Apart on Access to Important Golan Water Source

“The negotiations are over the Kinneret,” a leading Israeli diplomatic correspondent wrote this week, “not over the Golan.”

What negotiations? On the face of it, there are no negotiations. Israel under Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syria under President Hafez Assad, have failed, ostensibly, to relaunch their long-stalled peace negotiations, despite the high hopes engendered by Barak’s election victory last May.

Deadlocked over their disparate definitions of “the point at which the talks were broken off,” Assad and Barak have not found a way for their respective delegations to the negotiating table.

Direct talks between the two countries were last held at the Wye Plantation, outside Washington, in 1996.

In fact, though, as the Israeli foreign minister, David Levy, confirmed in a television interview in New York last weekend, this ongoing dispute over procedure has not stopped an intensive dialogue over substance. Discreet contacts are constantly under way — and apparently not only through third- party middlemen.

But that substantive dialogue, too, is deadlocked.

Syria insists on its forces taking up positions on the northeastern banks of the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, where they were deployed until the day before the 1967 Six-Day War.

Israel rejects this demand. It points out that the international boundary between Syria and Palestine, drawn up by Britain and France in 1923, ran a short but significant distance away from the shoreline. And Barak wants that boundary, too, redrawn in Israel’s favor, perhaps trading land close to the lake with other land farther south.

The difference, negligible perhaps in terms of square mileage, is vitally important both in relation to control of the Kinneret, Israel’s most important water resource, and in relation to Barak’s political standing and ability to win support from the Israeli public for a peace accord with Syria.

The prime minister has pledged that any deal negotiated with Damascus will be submitted to a national referendum.

Under international law, a party legally ensconced on the banks of a body of water has rights over some of that water. For Israel to acquiesce to the Syrian demand would mean recognizing Syria’s rights to fish in the Kinneret and, more importantly, to pump water from it.

Barak has committed himself to not accepting “the Syrians splashing their feet in the waters of the Kinneret,” an explicit statement that he will not be able to break easily. Certainly he would find it hard to go into a national referendum on Israel’s withdrawal from all of the Golan Heights if he could not even show that he had held firm over this last, strategically and symbolically important sliver.

Barak’s readiness to withdraw from the Golan, though never publicly pronounced by the premier himself, was confirmed last week when one of his most senior political lieutenants, Deputy Prime Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, told a TV interviewer that he favored such a withdrawal in the context of a secure peace agreement.

Ben-Eliezer is the highest-ranking government official to have spoken publicly in this way until now and while he does not commit Barak, his closeness to the prime minister is incontrovertible.

Ben-Eliezer’s statement made the prime minister’s own warning to Assad, delivered from the Knesset podium on Monday, all the more dramatic.

“The door of opportunity in the Middle East is open today,” Barak declared. “But no one can know for how long it will remain open.

“The time for decision is at hand.”

Barak pointedly reiterated his commitment to pull out of southern Lebanon by next July, thus firming up the time frame in which the Syrians and Israelis must decide whether a comprehensive peace is possible — or whether Israel’s pullback will be unilateral.

In this way, the Israeli leadership has effectively turned Israel’s ongoing Lebanese quagmire from a weapon in Syria’s hands to a way to pressure the Syrian leadership.

Levy told the U.N. General Assembly last week that Israel will not be held hostage “to a stubborn and defiant attitude for much longer.

“We will make our own independent decision, as we see fit.”

Assad knows that once the Israel leaves Lebanon, questions will mount within the Arab world as to why Syrian forces are still effectively occupying much of that country. The Syrians will become the sole foreign force in Lebanon, and their presence there will become awkward.

On the other hand, a broad Israeli-Syrian peace treaty, providing for an agreed-upon Israeli withdrawal, would implicitly acknowledge a continued Syrian role in Lebanon.

The procedural and substantive disputes came together at the United Nations in New York last weekend. Syrian and Israeli officials argued over what former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had or had not promised Syria, in a message delivered by then-U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa insisted that Christopher had “deposited” a commitment by Israel to withdraw to the June 4 line.

The Syrian statesman repeated this assertion in an interview with Newsweek. “Is acceptance of the June 4, 1967 border a prerequisite even for talks?” the Newsweek interviewer asked. “Certainly,” al-Sharaa replied.

Israel’s outgoing U.N. envoy, Dore Gold, took the floor to insist that there had been “no commitment to withdraw to the line of June 4, 1967.”

The United States, true to the code of diplomatic confidentiality, has offered no version of their own as to what transpired among Rabin, Christopher and Assad back in 1994. But whatever did transpire, it seems clear that Barak, who sees himself as the slain leader’s disciple, is determined to keep the Kinneret in Israel’s sole control.

As long as neither he nor Assad blinks, informal contacts between the two countries will remain barren and formal negotiations will not resume.

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