Transforming Golan Heights from Divisive to Unifying

Julian Brody wrote an interesting piece for IPF about US Govt’ envoy Fred Hoff’s innovative proposal on how to resolve the Golan Heights controversy between Israel and Syria.  What is insightful and creative about it is that it takes each party’s core priorities into consideration and not only addresses them but potentially even resolves the issue in a way that creates the foundations for a warmer peace, and a more vibrant & ecologically-sound economy.

The United States’ Attention Turns to Syria

By Julian Brody with IPF Staff
Middle East Special Envoy George Mitchell has dispatched his top advisor on Syria, Fred Hoff, to Jerusalem and Damascus, raising speculation about the resumption of direct Israeli-Syrian talks that have been frozen since 2008.
Hoff, a senior advisor to Mitchell, will spend three days in Israel with top government officials, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and National Security Advisor Uzi Arad.  He will then depart for Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem. 
The Timing
This could be an auspicious moment for the resumption of dialogue. Both Israeli and Syrian officials have stated qualified openness to renewing Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office, for example, recently released a statement that said, “Israel’s stance on the Syrian issue is known—it is willing to renew negotiations without preconditions.” President Assad also affirmed his intention to begin negotiations: “We still believe that we need to conclude a serious dialogue to lead us to peace.”  
The United States has also softened its approach to Syria—George Mitchell’s June 13th visit to Damascus was the United States’ highest ranking visit to Syria in four years. President Obama has announced his intention to appoint an ambassador to Syria for the first time since 2005. 
A peace deal could be attractive to Syria. Over the last five years, Syria has suffered from declining influence in the region and a collapsing economy. The recent electoral defeat of Hezbollah and the March 8 coalition in Lebanon’s June general election also reduced Syria’s power in Lebanon. In addition, the increasing instability and radicalization of Iran, Syria’s closest ally, further isolates Syria. By distancing itself from Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah and strengthening its relationship with the United States, Syria could increase its regional influence. 
Syria’s economy also continues to struggle. According to the U.S. State Department, “Syria ’s rate of oil production has been decreasing steadily, from a peak close to 600,000 barrels per day (bpd) in 1995 down to approximately 425,000 bpd in 2005. Experts generally agree that Syria will become a net importer of petroleum not later than 2012.” By strengthening its relationship with the United States and Europe through an Israeli-Syrian peace deal, Syria could continue to refinance its heavy foreign debt and attract foreign investment to spur economic growth.
Prime Minister Netanyahu could also benefit from an Israeli-Syrian treaty. Such a deal would demonstrate his commitment to the peace process and improve his relationship with President Obama. 
However, Prime Minister Netanyahu will face strong opposition to a Golan withdrawal. According to Hoff, polls consistently show that 70 percent of Israelis are unwilling to give up the Golan Heights. Public support may be the deciding factor; Netanyahu today announced his support for the Golan Referendum Bill, which would require a referendum to ratify any territorial concessions Israel makes regarding the Golan Heights. Though hawkish, this proposal will free Netanyahu’s hand to negotiate by placing the accountability for the approval of any agreement on the Israeli public. 
The Proposal
Fred Hoff’s role as a senior advisor to George Mitchell indicates the direction in which Israeli-Syrian negotiations may proceed. While working at the United States Institute of Peace, Hoff wrote a proposal in March 2009 entitled “Mapping Peace between Syria and Israel ” that, according to Yedioth Ahronoth’s Uri Misgav, Mitchell has subsequently adopted as the foundation for new Israeli-Syrian negotiations.
Hoff’s proposal expands on ideas first offered in 1999 and later drafted in the International Crisis Group’s recommendation for a “Treaty of Peace” in 2002. 
Recognizing the psychological importance of the Golan Heights to both the Syrians and Israelis, Hoff’s proposal stipulates that any agreement must provide both sides access to the territory.
Since Israel relies on the Sea of Galilee as its primary natural reservoir to serve its dense population centers, Hoff’s proposal avoids giving Syria the ability to increase its population density in the Golan Heights and possibly jeopardize Israel’s water supply. Instead, the proposal strives to “minimize the Syrian impact on waters vital to Israel’s economy, facilitate Israeli civilian access to the full circumference of the Sea, and carve out an area where Syrian-Israeli people-to-people contacts might easily and informally take place.” 
Hoff’s proposal would create a Jordan Valley-Golan Heights Environmental Preserve that transfers the territory to Syrian sovereignty while retaining Israel’s rights to the water and allowing Israeli citizens access to the preserve.
In essence “Syria gets the land and regulated access to the water, and Israel gets the water and regulated access to the land.” Bi-national access to the preserve will further increase Israeli-Syrian civilian contact and contribute to the development of a “warm peace.”
The territory would be completely demilitarized and with demilitarization guaranteed by the United States. The Israeli withdrawal will take place over a two year period that begins upon the signing of the treaty, which will “launch an extended period of time during which its terms and any side agreements or understandings will be implemented.” 
Hoff does not offer the delineation of the border, implying that the border will be negotiated. He does, however, offer a list of over two dozen existing national parks that could form the basis of a Jordan Valley-Golan Heights Environmental Preserve.
Though Hoff offers a practical and feasible solution, he neglects a major source of contention within the Israeli-Syrian relationship: terrorist sponsorship. It is unlikely that Israel will reach an agreement if Syria does not promise to renounce its ties with Hezbollah and Hamas. 
Hoff contends that Syrian renunciation of terror is a consequence, not a stipulation of the treaty, since “Syria would be unable to uphold its end of normal peaceful relations.” Given Israel’s previous negotiating style, however, Israel will demand this concession in writing. The question will become: will Syria be willing to cut itself off from Hezbollah, Hamas, and possibly Iran for peace with Israel and a strengthened relationship with the United States? To many, this is the key question in Israeli-Syrian negotiations.
Clear obstacles stand in the way of Israeli-Syrian peace. Nevertheless, the current climate in the region, combined with Hoff’s innovative proposal may provide the greatest chance for an agreement that we have seen since the Clinton administration. 

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  3. Rabbi Michael M. Cohen said:

    TODAYS ZAMAN (Turkey)
    December 26, 2009

    Environmental diplomacy and the Middle East

    The folk rock musician James Taylor laments in one of his songs, “And in between what might have been and what has come to pass, a misbegotten guess alas and bits of broken glass.”

    The ongoing tragic saga of the Arab-Israeli conflict can be summed up in this poignant line. This conflict repeats its refrain of violence and dehumanization over and over again. Like a song, its lyrics do not change.

    Something needs to happen. In this conflict, where the past is a prologue that continues to define the present, adding a new dynamic is essential to realign the participants. Reduced to one of its core components, this conflict is about land, more precisely, the borders that nations draw on the land. When thinking about what divides nations in this conflict, the land is often viewed as one of the major stumbling blocks to any reconciliation efforts between the various nations and peoples in the region. When the land is looked upon solely as a geopolitical instrument, that is true; however, when viewed from the perspective of the environment, a new framework opens up. The environment, which does not know political borders, invites us, forces us to work together.

    As the nations of the world turn more of their attention to the crisis of the earth’s environment, it becomes clear that no nation can address the needs of its environment unilaterally. The Middle East is no exception. With that understanding, in 1996, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies was founded. Located on Kibbutz Ketura on the Israeli-Jordanian border, the institute teaches and prepares future Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian leaders to cooperatively solve the region’s environmental challenges. Missing from that equation are Syria and Lebanon. If the region’s shared environment is to be fully addressed, both of these countries must be part of the equation; that equation cannot be completed until Israel is able to sign a peace treaty with both of them. In the dance of peace with Israel’s northern neighbors, Syria must be the first partner.

    In early April 1971, the US table tennis team was in Japan attending the 31st World Table Tennis Championship. Unexpectedly, they received an invitation to visit China, and a week later they found themselves in the People’s Republic. Through the excitement and dynamic of putting a human face on the enemy, ping pong diplomacy paved the way two months later for Henry Kissinger’s famous secret visit to China, which lead directly to Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China eight months afterwards.

    It is now time to enlist environmental diplomacy in the Middle East. At present, the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority are locked in an all too familiar pattern, incapable of moving the peace process forward. While at the same time relations between Jordan and Israel have sunk so low, there will soon be a temperature inversion, where the cold peace between Egypt and Israel will become how we describe the warm peace between the Hashemite Kingdom and the Jewish state.

    Syria, on the other hand, is in a position to make a bold move toward peace. Environmental diplomacy is an avenue to consider. Images of a delegation of Syrian students and/or Syrian academics visiting, for example, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel would be the positive shock this region of the world so desperately needs.

    To those naysayers on both sides who would question legitimizing the other party and their actions, let us not lose sight of the fact that when the US ping pong team went to China, the Vietnam War was still raging and the Chinese were both supporting and supplying the North Vietnamese in their war against the United States.

    Israel and Syria both face environmental challenges brought upon by population growth and industrialization that affect their air and water quality. In addition, both countries are made up of large land masses of deserts and climates that make reforestation in the face of desertification important to their national agendas. These environmental issues, of common interest to both parties, provide and create a mutual place of meeting and better understanding of each other.

    At the end of the day, peace treaties may be signed by governments and political leaders, but without the support of their respective peoples, the success of such documents can be severely truncated. Creating peace is not only about borders, security and cooperation; it is also a state of mind.

    Americans and Chinese citizens delighted in the images they saw of the ping pong players interacting with each other. The images they watched on television and stories they read in the newspapers, which showed the human face of the “enemy,” were a fresh break from the past that allowed for a new start and a new relationship to begin to be built between the two countries.

    The peoples of the Arab-Israeli conflict are no different. They long for a new song and a new beginning. Environmental diplomacy is a key to composing such a tune.

    *Rabbi Michael M. Cohen is the director of special projects for the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and is the author of “Einstein’s Rabbi: A Tale of Science and the Soul.”

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