ISRAEL: Water, not land, is the key to Shepherdstown talks

Syria's demand for a return of Golan Heights land captured by Israel in 1967 is taking second fiddle to the fight over the region's water rights as the two countries attempt to thrash out a peace deal in Sheperdstown, West Virginia.

While the Syrians press for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, General Uri Saguy, who has been appointed by the Israeli Government to head the peace negotiations with Damascus, concedes that water, not land, is the crucial issue between the two countries.

“Water is the most critical issue in the negotiations with Syria,” said General Saguy, implying that land is less of an issue. Saguy, a former head of the Israel Army Intelligence Division, also maintains that any solution to the water problem will be resolved within the context of an Israeli-Syrian-Turkish agreement. “If Israel is satisfied with water arrangements, then it will return all the territory,” he said.

The Golan provides more than 12% of Israel’s water requirements, estimated at 1.8Bnm3/year. Israel consumes 122Mm3/year of water from the Hasbani River, 121Mm3/year from the Banias River and Mount Hermon, in addition to the many springs in the Golan. The rest of Israel’s water comes from a few main sources which, without the Golan, would be insufficient – the Coastal Aquifer, the Mountain Aquifer, the Sea of Galilee basin and the Yarkon-Taninim Aquifer.

General Saguy’s comments are apparently directed at those involved in the peace process who have equated land with security. Saguy said that, “the security arrangements are a lot easier than the water issues because militarily, the Golan Heights offer little advantage.”

Water, on the other hand, matters more. By abandoning the superficial, but highly emotional charge – the issue of occupying the Golan – and raising the strategic water issue, Saguy and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak are taking a serious step towards negotiating a formal peace.

For a successful outcome, Barak will have to convince right-wing Israelis that water matters more than land, while also brokering a deal with the Syrians and the Turks.

Speculation has been rife about the talks taking place in the US’ West Virginia suburbs. The US has reportedly asked Ankara to negotiate with Damascus for a final statement on Turkey and Syria sharing Euphrates’ waters, in an attempt to encourage Syrian flexibility in water deals with Israel.

Syria has been at odds with Turkey over its control of the Euphrates for years. But according to newspaper sources at the Arabic daily, Al Hayat, Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem has told Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara that Ankara is willing to discuss the water issue.

According to a report by US business intelligence company, Stratfor Global Intelligence Center, Israel will have to strike some sort of deal that allows it to continue using Golan water, or else sack the peace process and maintain its occupation of the Golan Heights.

Thus, Saguy’s comment about an Israel-Turkey-Syria water deal coupled with Ankara’s willingness to discuss the issue could be the solution to the region’s water issues.

Israel and Turkey have discussed water co-operation themselves. The Israeli government is examining — but is yet undecided on – the feasibility of transporting water from Turkey to Israel. Bringing water from Turkey, while expensive, would not be difficult for Israel. Pipes can be laid under the Mediterranean, or water can be transported by barges, and if Syria were to co-operate, pipes could be laid across land.

Syria has expressed fears in past months that Turkey is using its control over the Tigris and Euphrates – Syria’s two main sources of water – as a political lever.

The feeling in Israel is that if Syria misses that chance, it would face a situation where two of its neighbours with extremely powerful militaries could conceivably work together to control water. A three-way compromise, as envisaged by General Saguy, could be the only way to achieve a peace deal.

Heavy rains in Israel at the beginning of January raised the water level in the Sea of Galilee by 12cm. Translated into water volume, each additional centimetre of water represents an additional 1.8Mm3 of water.

But Israeli water experts remain pessimistic. Water Commissioner Meir Ben-Meir said that “even if the winter proves to be one of bountiful rainfall, it will not solve the long term water problem.”

Interviewed in the Jerusalem Post, Ben-Meir said: “The situation is certainly better than it was, but it still does not close the gap between increasing demand for water and our fragile and unstable resources. Desalination, therefore, is still an urgent need to ensure a decent standard of living, and agricultural and economic activities.”

However, at the time of writing, the Israeli authorities had taken no decision on desalination. The entire Israel/Syria dispute could be thrown wide open again in the near future if Israel doesn’t have a new source of water to satisfy its own growing needs, or the capacity to cope with Palestinian demands for more water from the aquifer under the West Bank.

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