golan heights: Economic Stakes in the Constraining the Peace Process? 44 THE CHRONICLES, FALL 2009 POLITICS & POLICY

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1 Economic Stakes in the golan heights: Constraining the Peace Process? Sara El Abd, Economics Undergraduate, AUC Since the Golan Heights were lost by Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, the land has been under Israeli occupation; and despite international criticism, Israel annexed the Golan Heights in Although the territory is merely 460 square miles, it offers political, economic, social, and strategic significance to Israel; making it increasingly difficult to cede to Syria in exchange for peace and fully normalized relations. Israel gains in economic terms from the Golan, specifically in regards to agriculture, tourism, and water access. The Golan is rich in farmland and water, two commodities that are scarce and dear to the State of Israel 2. Since the failure of the peace negotiations in Geneva in 2000, talks have come to a deadlock. This situation gives rise to two important questions: Is pushing for peace talks with Syria in Israel's national interest economically and politically? And are the predicted economic losses associated with the return of the Golan the main obstacle hindering the much-anticipated peace talks between both states? 44 THE CHRONICLES, FALL 2009 Israel's Economic Gains from the Golan Heights: Since occupation, Israel has used the fertility of the Golan landscape to enrich and expand its agricultural sector. Fertile land, such as that of the Golan Heights, is an essential asset because over half of its land is arid or semi-arid desert 3. Approximately 40% of Israeli beef, 30% apples, 38% wine exports, 32% potatoes, 23% corn, 50% cherries, 41% wool, 28% eggs, and 6% of milk of the Israeli domestic market come from the Golan 4. Maintaining control over this piece of land allows Israel greater selfsufficiency, producing almost 70% of all its food requirements. Israel's agricultural revenues from the Golan amount to approximately 500 million Shekels. It is clear that the Golan is very valuable to Israel in agricultural terms because of its contribution to the national economy; giving up such agricultural land would be a huge cost to Israel not only because of loss in revenue, but it will also disturb "the economic balance [by] affecting the agricultural distribution 5." If such

2 crops cannot be grown in the Golan, relocating would come at a cost to Israel, especially as it strives to develop its agricultural industry despite its scarce water supply. Furthermore, the Golan is a popular tourist destination in Israel that contributes to Israel's rapidly growing tourism industry and ultimately the national economy. Outdoor traveling and activities such as skiing, snowboarding, rock-climbing, etc are common sources of revenue; 6 as are its national parks, reserves, and archaeological sites. Tourism revenues coming directly from the Golan amount to approximately 150 million Shekels per year. The most important reason why Israel is holding on to the Golan Heights is because it serves as a gateway to water access. Approximately 400 meters of the Golan borders the Sea of Galilee. This strip of land has been a key factor in previous Israeli-Syrian peace talks and it is evident that Israel is desperate to remain in control of it. The Syrian-Israeli peace talks discussed Syria exchanging peace in return for the entirety of the Golan. The talks failed when Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister at the time, refused to return the 400 meters that bordered the shore of the Sea of Galilee 7. In terms of production, 50% of mineral water in Israel comes from the Golan Heights. The watershed of Lake Kinneret provides Israel with one-third of its fresh water supply, and "Israel cannot exist without it." 8 The reason why Israel blooms in the south is because of the water coming from the Galilee; this is what turns the Negev Desert, half of Israel's territory, into productive land 9. The importance of the Golan cannot be understated because it affords Israel total command of the Galilee Basin, east as well as west. The Position of the Current Israeli Government Concerning a Peace Deal with Syria: In George Mitchell's recent visit to Syria, he pointed out that the Syrian government had an "integral role" in reaching peace in the region 10. US officials have recently proposed a plan that entails a vision of Syrian-Israeli peace that transforming the Golan Heights into a demilitarized nature reserve, or a "peace park" that would open to visitors during the day 11. Currently, Frederic C. Hof, conflict resolution expert and senior adviser to Mitchell, is in the process of presenting a draft plan for Syrian-Israeli peace which targets finding solutions to the Golan dispute. Hof's ideas were published in a report called "Mapping Peace between Syria and Israel" which is famously known for envisions of turning the Golan into an environmental reserve 12. Despite US efforts, the new Israeli government's position reveals that an Israeli-Syrian peace deal looks unlikely. Netanyahu's stance is that "if there is a territorial compromise, it is one that still leaves Israel on the Golan Heights and deep into the Golan Heights". The government will only agree to negotiations with "no prior conditions," but, at the same time wanting to remain in control of much of the territory for "strategic, military, and land-settlement reasons needs of water, wine, and landscape" 13. This presents an obstacle to the negotiations as Syria has maintained that peace will be possible only if Israel withdraws entirely from the Heights. In April 2009, Foreign Minister Lieberman stated that he was willing to start negotiations with Syria if there are no preconditions or ultimatums. Bashar Al-Assad demanded going back to the 1967 borders and giving up the Golan Heights as a pre-requisite for Syrian-Israeli negotiations, claiming that THE CHRONICLES, FALL

3 if Israel refuses to give up Heights, the territory will be taken by force 14. Some officials, such as former Israeli Defense Minister, Shaul Mofaz, believe that the Golan Heights are a strategic asset that Israel must not hand over to Syrians because they are not ready for peace and cannot be trusted. Mofaz bluntly stated that Israel could achieve a state of peace and coexistence with Syria without having to cede the Golan Heights 15. From previously unsuccessful negotiations, it is evident that Israel demands that Syria disengage from Iran, close the offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and play a positive role in persuading them to accept a peaceful solution and cooperate with the Palestinian National Authority in return for ceding any piece of land 16. Obstacles in Syrian-Israel Peace Negotiations: It is clear that Israel does indeed gain from the Golan Heights in economic terms. Specifically, it earns approximately 1.6 billion Shekels from it per year. However, when looking at the bigger picture, its contribution to the national economy only % of the 582 billion ShekelGDP. Therefore, the agricultural and tourist gains are not the issue per se; they are part of the issue. Israel can afford to give up this small percentage of GDP considering the main sources of revenue come from industry, IT, diamonds, etc. However, the heart of the conflict is over security, water, and territory. The Israeli government will never make any territorial concessions before being fully guaranteed security from Syria and intermediaries such as the US and UN. This includes Syria cutting ties with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. The economic losses of tourism and agriculture can be sacrificed but security and water will not. Regarding water, Israel cannot exist without the supplies from the Sea of Galilee and Lake Kinneret. Syria claims that water arrangements will be inclusive in a peace agreement, along with security and fully normalized relations 17.These arrangements must be upheld with full backing and approval of intermediaries such as the US, UN, and EU, for there to be any hopes of successful talks this time around. The economic price Israel would incur will be relocating the 40,000 settlers who have been residing in the Golan since 1967, and compensating them for such. All the revenues coming in from Golan agriculture and farmland will be lost, forcing the Israeli government to turn additional desert land into land convenient for agriculture. The political price for Israel is significantly greater than the economic price. In a recent interview I conducted with Shani Cooper-Zubida, spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, she explained that the debate over security creates the biggest divide within the Israeli state. Netanyahu's present right-wing government was elected based on its security promises to the public. The motto of the government is "security will lead to peace 18." The Israeli government prioritizes security first, peace second (not the opposite). The greatest fear of the public and the government is that what happened in the Gaza Strip will happen in the Golan Heights if it were to cede it to Syria. Upon the withdrawal from the territory, groups such as Hamas or Hezbollah could threaten the Israeli population with missile fires, thus deterring the Israeli government as they are held responsible. More importantly, the prime minister does not want to jeopardize his re-election and anger the hawkish coalition. It is almost guaranteed that within months or even weeks of ceding the Golan, the coalition government in Israel will collapse; similar to what happened after Oslo and 46 THE CHRONICLES, FALL 2009

4 the disengagement from Gaza. Moreover, the significance of some of the Zionist ideology streams cannot be ignored as there are numerous Israeli citizens who truly believe that the Golan historically and rightfully belongs to Israel. Although they are not the majority of the population, they do reflect the mindset of part of the population, not to mention the Knesset as well. The main cause for hesitation on the Israeli government's side is the political price they will have to pay, not the economic one. The general sentiment of the population can be seen in the May 2009 polls of The Jerusalem Post that showed that the majority of the Israeli population was against withdrawing from even part of the Golan. When asked "should Israel agree to concessions on the Golan Heights in return for full peace with Syria, that includes diplomatic relations and adequate security arrangements?" 52% said that Israel should not give up any territory on the Golan Heights 19. Such polls leave the government in fear of sparking a political earthquake within Israel if the expectations of its people are frustrated as a result of the sacrifices that would be made for peace negotiations with a country seen as distrustful. Regarding turning the Heights into a peace park, Ammar El-Arsan, spokesperson for the Syrian Embassy in Cairo, firmly told me it is "a big no." The land is unlawfully occupied Syrian territory that must be returned to Syria. Arsan further explained "the only lines acceptable are the June 4, 1967 lines Syria will accept negotiating on other things, not this." It is unlikely that the Syrian position will budge because the "land for peace" principle has been the basis of negotiations since Moreover, Syria has the backing of the international community. Israel is occupying the Syrian territory of the Golan Heights despite UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. For the Syrians, illegitimate occupation means no peace, said El-Arsan 20. Pushing for Progress: After realizing the absolute complexity of the situation, one begins to question the likelihood of successful peace talks in light of current US efforts. Although the Obama Administration has been shuttling envoys back and forth in the region hoping to spark negotiations, the international community is unlikely to see results that quickly because such negotiations take several months or years before agreed upon and finalized. It is unmistakable that the US is pressuring the Israeli government hoping that it will have rippling effects on Israeli public opinion, making them more open to the concept of territorial concessions. In the short-term, there is no reason why Israel should push forward and be enthusiastic over negotiations. Maintaining the status quo is in Israel's national interest. It will gain from the fresh water supply, tourism, agriculture, and security from the quiet border. Also, the UNDOF forces in the Golan are doing their job and there is no threat whatsoever from Syria over a pre-emptive strike 21. The Golan border is quiet and free from instability, much more so than the Egyptian-Israeli border; and it is likely to remain so unless terrorist groups from Syria attack Israel and provoke Israel to strike in return 22. To put it frankly, Bashar Al-Assad's threats of taking the Golan by force are not taken seriously. The present coalition is maximizing Israel's present national interests without looking ahead. However, in the long-term, Israel is not protecting its national interests whatsoever because although it thinks it is guaranteeing the security of the population now, later it cannot. Despite what the government thinks, time will not solve their problems with their neighbors. The anger of extremist THE CHRONICLES, FALL

5 organizations will culminate and may very well trigger another war 23. No one can avoid a sudden war in the Middle East, such as what happened in Gaza in 2008/9 and Lebanon in The degree of sacrifice during negotiations from both sides will depend extensively on public opinion. The Arab population is now very accepting to the "land for peace" propositions with Israel. In contrast, the majority of the Israeli population is not convinced with this concept. They are convinced with exchanging peace for peace or security for peace. Therefore, the issue lies within the Israeli public themselves because they are not ready for fully-fledged peace, leaving the Netanyahu government no choice but to reflect their desires. The main question for Israeli politicians is whether or not their country can withstand the losses associated with ceding the Golan. And the main question for Syrian politicians is how much longer will they passively keep promising their people the return of their land without any action to show for it? Both Lieberman and Al-Muallim claim to be willing to negotiate over the Golan, but there are no clear prospects foreseeable from either side. If both Israel and Syria continually pursue their short-term national interests devoid from long-term peaceful resolution attempts, Israel will never cede the Golan and militarized groups in Syria and elsewhere may actually use force in an attempt to regain sovereignty over the occupied territory causing a more wars and disruptions. End Notes: 1 BBC News (2009), "Regions and Territories: The Golan Heights" 2 Tristam (2008), "Syria, the Golan, and Peace with Israel" 3 Israeli Agriculture (2008), "Examining Israel's Agricultural Community" 4 Public Affairs Spokesperson, Embassy of Israel Cairo 5 Ibid 6 Levit (2008), "Israel's Tourism Industry: Recovering from Crises and Generating Growth", p 10 7 Tristam (2008), "Syria, the Golan, and Peace with Israel" 8 Public Affairs Spokesperson, Embassy of Israel Cairo 9 Ibid 10 BBC News (2009), "Israel Must Stay 'Deep in Golan'" 11 The Age (2009), "US Wants Golan to Become a 'Peace Park'" 12 Christian Science Monitor (2009), "In Israel, US Envoy Maps Peace With Syria" 13 BBC News(2009), "Israel Must Stay 'Deep in Golan'" 14 BBC Monitoring Middle East (2009), "Israeli Foreign Minister Says Ready to Talk to Syria if no Preconditions" 15 BBC Monitoring Middle East (2008), "Israel Must Not Cede Golan Heights as Syria 'Cannot be Trusted'-Minister," June 3, BBC Monitoring Middle East (2009), "Writer Says Syrian Demands Hampering Return of Golan Heights" 17 Al-Arsan (2009), Spokesperson, Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic, Cairo, Interview 18 Public Affairs Spokesperson, Embassy of Israel, Cairo, Interview 19 BBC Monitoring Middle East (2009), "Israelis Opposed to Golan Withdrawal in Return for Peace with Syria-Polls" 20 Al-Arsan (2009), Spokesperson, Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic, 48 THE CHRONICLES, FALL 2009

6 Cairo, Interview 21 Public Affairs Spokesperson, Embassy of Israel Cairo 22 Schieder (2009), The Washingtn Post, "Netanyahu Gets More Time, Hopes to Forge Broader Coalition" 23 Public Affairs Spokesperson, Embassy of Israel Cairo THE CHRONICLES, FALL

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