Syria's Price Tag: Israel's Water Resources

By David Eshel

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"Syria's president wants to resume peace negotiations with Israel", said U.S. Senator Arlen Specter last Tuesday, at a news conference at Damascus airport after meeting with Syrian president Bashar Assad. The Pennsylvania Republican senator, who visited Syria despite objections from the Bush administration, did not say what conditions Assad gave for resuming talks with the Israelis, which broke down in 2000. Still, Israeli intelligence sources regard a change in Bashar Assad's strategic attitude.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made it clear to the cabinet on Sunday that one reason Israel is not embracing recent overtures for negotiations from Syria is American opposition. An Israeli official stressed, that even if Bush was to give a green light for Israeli-Syrian negotiations, Israel would still have to decide whether the price which Syria demands - being the ultimate return of the entire Golan Heights, would be sufficient to pull Syria out of the "axis of evil" orbit with Iran.

The Golan water-shed is the source for more than 55 percent of Israel’s fresh water needs and forms part of the ground water reserves that supplies Israel with most of their water supply.

Although the core issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict has always been the Palestine question, water has been a continuous matter of dispute that is intrinsically linked to it.

Because half of Israel’s water demands are being met outside of its internationally recognised borders, water has become a major factor in all past disputes, especially over the Golan Heights. The Golan water-shed is the source for more than 55 percent of Israel’s fresh water needs and forms part of the main aquifer-system that supplies Israel with most of their water supply. Together with the Jordan river headwaters originating near the disputed "Sheeba Farms" in south Lebanon, Wazzani springs, the Hasbani and Banyas, are all receiving their main sources from the 2800m Hermon mountain massiv. It should be stressed that most of the tributary streams flowing into the Jordan and Lake Tiberias originate on the Golan slopes. As past history conflicts over these water disputes demonstrated, only an Israeli presence in the basins of these streams can assure their continued flow to Lake Tiberias.

In contrast to Israel's irreplaceable water lifeline from the Golan Heights basin to the river Jordan below, Syria obtains approximately 85 percent of the renewable water supplies from the huge Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as well as the Orontes, which also irrigates large parts of northern Syria.

A major element in any future peace negotiations bweteen Syria and Israel will be the so-called " Line of 4 June 1967 " issue, which has become part of the Arab-Israeli peace process lexicon, for years. It encapsulates the extent of the withdrawal demanded of Israel by Syria in the context of any peace treaty. Conceptually, the line of 4 June 1967 was the confrontation line, on the day before the outbreak of the 5 June 1967 war.

Only along one 15-kilometer stretch did this dubious line correspond with the international boundary between Palestine and Syria instituted by Great Britain and France in 1923. Neither did it correspond to the mutually agreed UN brokered Armistice Demarcation Line agreed to by the parties in 1949, after the first Arab Israeli war. In fact, the root of the Arab-Israeli water issue can be traced back to 9 March 1916, when the Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed between the British and the French

The Syria-Palestine boundary (later Israel) itself was a product of the post-World War I Anglo-French partition of Ottoman Syria. It was intentionally demarcated so that all of Lake Tiberias, including a rediculous "ten-meter wide" strip of beach along its northeastern shore, would stay inside Palestine. Under the terms of an armistice signed on 20 July 1949, Syrian forces were to withdraw east of the old Palestine-Syria boundary. Israeli forces were to refrain from entering the evacuated areas, which would become a demilitarized zone. However, following incessant armed clashes over these territorial ambiguities, Israel, feeling constantly threatened by the dominating Golan Heights over the Jordan Valley rift, started a creeping annexation of the disputed territory, which ended only with the occupation of the entire Golan Heights after 1967. Israeli claimed sovereignty over Demilitarised military zone (DMZ), on the basis that, "it was always part and parcel of the British Mandated Territory". The conflict over the Golan waters culminated in 1964, when Syria decided, unilaterally to divert the Banyas and Hasbani and lead their waters to the Yarmouk river on the Jordan border, thus denying Israel its main water resources. Israel immediately retaliated sharply by armed force destroying the Syrian construction first by long-range precision tank fire and later, as the Syrians shifted their work further eastward, with massive airstrikes. A few years later the Six Day War broke out, capturing the Golan Heights in June 1967.

One matter is crystal clear: from an international point of law: The "June 4 line" should be excluded in any Syrian demand. This line is not officially shown on any map. It is not even part of any agreement or treaty. Moreover,as it contains territories captured by the Syrian Army during the 1948/9 war and thus relate to the same clausus, as stipulated by Syria on the very claim to Israeli occupied Golan Heights-both being direct results of acts of war.

Serving an example that mutual solutions can be reached even the volatile Middle East, demonstrates the water agreement between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. On October 26 1994 Jordan and Israel signed a mutual peace treaty. Some specific articles of the agreement deal with the Jordan River. Israel and Jordan have agreed to share the river's waters. The parties agreed to provide water to one another and according to the treaty, both countries have established a joint water committee to oversee issues regarding the quality of the water.

As goodwill gesture, Israel agreed to an annual transfer 75 million cubic meters of high quality water to Jordan, mainly from its Lake Tiberias reservoir- which is strictly adhered too, even when the lake is at sub level due to low average rainfall years.

The maximum limit of any Israeli withdrawal from the Golan to be such, that Arab water sources remain fully under Israeli control.

If, through future peace negotiations, the Syrian border should come closer to the 4 June1967 border rather than the internationally acknowledged 1923 border, and all of Golan Heights should be handed over to Damascus' demand, chances are high that Israel would have to surrender its claim to over a third of its fresh water supplies- the Jordan river tributaries, not to mention losing full control of its sole national water reservoir-Lake Tiberias.

A report prepared by Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, which remained classified for some time, shows the maximum limit of any Israeli withdrawal from the Golan to be such, that Arab water sources remain fully under Israeli control. Peace with Syria is a strategic goal toward which Israel must work, a goal that inevitably entails withdrawal from at least a large part of the Golan Heights. Inspite of all pessimism regarding a settlement between the two hostile nations, peace between Israel and Syria is still possible. The two have concluded agreements in the past, which were scrupulously mutually observed. The first Israel-Syria agreement was the Armistice Agreement of 1949. In 1974, following the Yom Kippur War, the "Separation of Forces Agreement on the Golan Heights" was reached with the United States acting as an intermediary. A third agreement, in 1976, also reached through American mediation, was a tacit understanding between Damascus and Jerusalem, the so-called "Red Lines" agreement, in which Israel and Syria recognized each other's security interests in Lebanon. Israel even silently accepted a Syrian military presence in parts of Lebanon, with limitations on surface-to-air missiles, while Syria accepted Israel's security interests in southern Lebanon.

But Israel’s main objective remains imperative to control its vital Arab water resources. All else is secondary. It is believed that Syria will never surrender its rights as a riparian state to the river Jordan and lake Tiberias and may ask for compensation for its diverted resources in the last 50 years. Both Israel and Syria still have a long way to go, until, if at all, an acceptable solution can be reached over such vital strategic issues. Only time will show if peace or war are in the in the cards over the Golan Heights.


Read David Eshel's past commentary here



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