What’s At Stake in the Golan Heights: Water for Peace?

Thursday’s WPR Media Roundup featured several commentary pieces that highlight two closely related issues whose importance for the future of the Middle East can not be overestimated: the current Turkish-mediated talks between Israel and Syria (and the question of a potential U.S.-involvement), and how to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its drive to become the region’s dominant power.

Indirect talks between Israel and Syria have been going on for a while, and both parties have good reason to be interested in such talks: Syria is shunned both by the West and by the Sunni Arab world due to its close relations with Shiite Iran and its support for terrorist groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Therefore, Syria may want to look for ways to break out of its isolation. Israel perceives a nuclear Iran as an existential threat and is keenly interested in luring Syria away from its allies in Tehran. On their face, Israeli-Syrian negotiations are about the Golan Heights, which are currently controlled by Israel. However, Syria doesn’t just want the Golan Heights back, and Israel doesn’t just want a peace treaty with Syria.

The difficulties are highlighted in a fascinating cover story in the forthcoming June 23, 2008, issue of The Jerusalem Report (currently available to non-subscribers here):

The big stumbling block is that the regional dimensions of the Israel-Syria equation have changed dramatically since 2000 [when the last serious Israeli-Syrian peace effort broke down after talks in Shepherdstown, West Virginia]. The Syrian alliance with Iran is much deeper than it was and U.S. readiness to underwrite an Israel-Syria peace deal is much diminished. Neither factor bodes well: If the United States does not make it worth Syria’s while, it will not detach itself from the Iranian axis; and if Syria does not break with Iran, Israel is unlikely to sign a peace deal that entails returning the Golan.

However, one of the most intriguing bits of information offered by the Jerusalem Report’s cover story on the “Golan Gamble” is the outline of a “grandiose plan that would put an end to the acute water shortage plaguing Israel and its neighbors”:

The plan provides for the pumping of two to three billion cubic meters of water a year — more than the current total combined consumption of Israel and the Palestinian Authority — from two rivers, the Ceyhan and the Seyhan, in southeastern Turkey, for use in Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. The water would be channeled from Turkey, which enjoys a huge water surplus, in underground pipes and overland canals through western Syria to the southern slopes of Mount Hermon, where it would flow into a dam along the length of the northern stretch of a new Israeli-Syrian border, providing hydro-electric power and serving as a major obstacle against a tank blitz from the Golan Heights, which would be returned to Syria as part of the projected peace package. Some of the water en route would be diverted to Lebanon and water from the dam channeled to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. “Everybody wins,” says the plan’s author, water engineer Boaz Wachtel, an Israeli fellow at the Washington-based Freedom House, which promotes democracy, peace and human rights. “The Arabs and Israelis get water and stability, the Turks hard currency and enhanced international status.”

But because this is the Middle East, even a plan that lets “everybody win” may not be tempting enough to get everybody to sign on.