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Thursday, May 22, 2008

What's behind the Israel-Syria talks

JTA has a lengthy article on its site (Hat Tip: Memeorandum) that seeks to analyze the reasons that Israel and Syria are now talking. What's curious about the article is that the only mention of Prime Minister Ehud K. Olmert's criminal investigations comes almost at the end of the article, and then it is immediately dismissed. But most Israelis see Olmert's criminal problems as the driving force behind the negotiations on the Israeli side. Here are some reasons why most Israelis don't believe there could be much else behind our government entering into these talks.

1. Leaving the Golan is immensely unpopular among the general public. While talking about leaving may keep Labor in the government - which is its main goal - actually doing a deal with the Syrians seems most unlikely. Overnight polls indicate that the vast majority of Israelis are unwilling to come down from the Golan, even if it would bring peace with Syria.
65 percent of Israelis are against a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, even if this would bring true peace with Syria, a poll published by the Geo-Cartographic Institute revealed Thursday.

64% of respondents were also against partial withdrawal from the Heights and a similar percentage said it was inappropriate that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was holding negotiations with Syria at a time when his political future was uncertain.

Geo-Cartographic Institute president, professor Avi Dgani, told Army Radio on Thursday that "the people are with the Golan and not with Olmert. A big part of the public is against withdrawing from even a part of the Golan Heights." Dgani was paraphrasing a bumper sticker with the text "The people are with the Golan," distributed during Israeli-Syrian talks in the 1990s.

A telephone poll conducted by Channel 2 Wednesday evening showed similar results, with 70 percent against relinquishing the Golan Heights for peace with Syria, compared to 22% in favor of such a move.
That's more Israelis than oppose dividing Jerusalem. And most Israelis believe that the real motivation for Olmert putting the Golan on the line at this time is saving his corrupt rear end:
Also according to the Channel 2 poll, 57% believe the timing of the newly-announced negotiations is linked to the corruption case against Olmert, compared to 22% who don't think there is any connection between the two issues.
2. The Israeli public has been conditioned to the Golan being part of Israel. Unlike much of Judea and Samaria, which is of little interest to those who are not on the right side of the political map, the Golan is part of Israel's national consensus. It has a very different image than Judea and Samaria. This is from an old JPost article.
Over the years, mainstream attitude toward the Golan became totally different from that of the other "occupied territories." There are a number of real and perceived reasons for this. While Gaza, Judea and Samaria embodied the riots of two intifadas, a month of frustrating reserve service each year for many men, difficult pictures every night on TV and bearded religious settlers, the Golan symbolized something else.

The Heights, which in 1981 were recognized by the Knesset as being an official part of the State, are the only ski resort you don't have to fly to, the advent of good local wine and a favorite vacation destination in faux Swiss chalets. Instead of hostile Palestinians, the only indigenous population is in the three Druse villages, great places to stop for humous or labane while the border has been quiet since 1973. Instead of messianic settlers, the Golan is filled with attractive, secular farmers.

The reality is quite different. Half the moshavim in the Golan are religious (while a majority of Israelis living in the West Bank are not national-religious), the Druse maintain their allegiance to Damascus religiously and despite being relatively low-key, the IDF presence on the Heights is massive.

But image is everything. West Bank settlers are called in the media and by most Israelis mitnahlim, a rather derogatory, marginalizing term, while the settlers of the Golan are much more positive mityashvim.


It's not due to the strategic factors, like the Heights' importance for the defense of the northern approaches and its dominance of crucial water supplies - the West Bank's strategic value is if anything greater. Rather, it's because the Golan has become an inseparable part of our comfort zone.

For over two decades, the great majority of Israelis haven't ventured across the Green Line into Judea and Samaria save for military service, and biblical homelands such as Hebron and Nablus are regarded by most as alien territory. But on the Golan the water is sparkling, the Cabernet luscious and the climate pleasant. Even the most peace seeking Israelis are prone to the heretical thoughts that perhaps there are some things preferable to a peace treaty.
3. Topography. Anyone who hasn't been to the Golan would find it hard to picture. The Golan sits on the eastern side of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and rises like a steep cliff all along it (go look at the picture from across the Sea of Galilee in the post I just linked). Roads seem to go straight up or straight down until you hit the plateau. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to feel how Syrian troops could have sat on those heights until 1967 and shot down at the Israeli fields below. The older generation still remembers that shooting. Many people in their 50's and 60's grew up sleeping in bunkers every night because of it. The vast majority of Israelis don't trust the Syrians enough to concede the entire game before the negotiations even open, as the Syrians have always demanded. The topography continues to reinforce that lack of trust and the memories of the shooting.

4. Water. A year ago, I wrote a lengthy post about Israel's coming water crisis. This came from YNet .
The Israeli public should be aware that today whoever controls the areas of Samaria, Judea (which overlie vital ground water supplies) and the Golan (which is a crucial part of the Sea of Galilee's drainage basin,) also controls of the flow of water to the taps in the nation's homes and industries.

In order to contend with Israel's hydrological deficit, estimated at 300-500 million cubic meters per annum, the government has decided, a decade later than it should have, to embark on an ambitious desalination initiative. The objective of this enterprise is to free the country from the fickle whims of the weather in an arid area of the world located on the fringes of a desert, by the large scale artificial generation of water.

The first such plant, sited near Ashkelon, recently began operating, more than five years after the government approved its construction. The plant, which is the biggest and one of the most advanced facilities of its kind in the world, produces 100 million cubic meters annually – i.e. between one fifth and one third of the current hydrological deficit.

This means that even without yielding a single liter of water to any Arab entity, Israel still requires the construction of an additional three to five similar plants – the biggest in the world – to achieve "sustainable management" of the existing hydro-resources i.e. to prevent their over-exploitation and accelerated salting and pollution due to excess extraction.

This is clearly not the appropriate framework for a detailed professional analysis of Israeli hydrology, so it will suffice to draw attention to two hydrological facts that are not in contention: (a) Whatever the de jure provisions of any future peace treaty may be, evacuation (even a partial one) of Judea, Samaria and the Golan, will transfer the de facto control over about one billion(!) cubic meters of water to Arab hands; (b) Whoever controls these areas can create – whether through purposeful malice or unintended incompetence - a situation whereby these quantities of water will be denied to the Israeli consumer.
That was written a year ago. Today, it's even worse. We just had another winter of below-average rainfall. According to Mekorot, the national water carrier, the water level of the Sea of Galilee is currently 212.4 meters below sea level (link in Hebrew). There is no more significant rain anticipated before October. This is a hot, dry country. Within the next month or two, the water level will reach 213 meters below sea level. Beneath that level, Mekorot can no longer safely pump from the Sea of Galilee. The salt content of the water is too high.

If Syria had the Golan, it would be even worse.
In 1965, Syria began building dams to divert water from the Banias and Dan Rivers in the Golan Heights. These headwater diversions threatened to deprive Israel of 35% of its water potential from the Upper Jordan. Israel, as a riparian state of the Jordan Basin, considered this action an aggression on its water resources and sent fighter planes to destroy working sites.

Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights in 1967 and subsequent control over the Jordan's headwaters in the area ended Arab dreams and plans for utilizing the water of the Jordan Basin.
And most of the Golan's water already goes to Syria and Jordan! Israel simply cannot afford to put itself in a position where an avowed enemy can interfere with its water supplies. Especially when the border with that enemy has been quiet - bli ayin hara (warding off evil eyes) for 35 years!

While Olmert may drink to the prospect of giving away the Golan, the average Israeli will never support it. Due to the Golan's water resources, topography, positive image in the country and popularity, and due to Israelis' deep mistrust of Syria, even Ehud K. Olmert must know that he cannot give the Golan away. His only motivation for trying to do so is saving his political skin.

By the way, on the Syrian side, motivations are obvious. They want the Golan (all of it) and they want US assistance for their economy. So far there has been no indication that they are willing to disassociate themselves from their terrorist friends (Hamas and Hezbullah and Iran) in return for getting the Golan, let alone make peace with Israel. In fact, Israel Radio just quoted a Syrian minister as saying that Syria sees no reason for changing its relations with Hezbullah. You've got to be kidding!


At 6:56 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

Exactly! Carl - the other obvious factor you didn't mention is there's no demographic problem that justifies Israel giving the Golan away. It has a Jewish majority and there's no Arab population. Zip, zero, zilch, nada. Very few Israelis think its a good idea to expel 25,000 Jews from the Heights just to eat hummus and shop in the Damascus bazaars. There aren't any real advantages to leaving the Golan and there are a lot of downsides. Which is why an Olmert bid to give it all away would go exactly nowhere and I don't think its a coincidence his office denied he agreed to commit to a full withdrawal with the Syrians.

So bottom line its not going to happen any time soon.

At 10:09 AM, Blogger Carl in Jerusalem said...


It's not about demographics in Judea and Samaria either. That's just an excuse the left uses. They believe there's something 'morally wrong' with 'occupation,' even when it's our land to start with and we liberated it in a defensive war. The left doesn't believe war ought to have any consequences for the loser who initiated it.


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