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Water: The Key to Middle East Peace?

Stratfor Special Report,
10 November 1999


While Syria continues to demand an Israeli withdrawal from the "strategic Golan Heights," Israeli Gen. Uri Saguy made it clear Nov. 8 that water, not land, is the critical issue between Israel and Syria. Israel is willing to consider the development of water deals with Turkey and Syria, but, so far, Syria has not participated in any negotiations on the matter. The peace process may hinge on the creation of a three-way water deal among Israel, Syria and Turkey.


Gen. Uri Saguy, reportedly the Israeli government's favorite candidate to head peace negotiations with Damascus, recently told a Nazareth daily, that "water is the most critical issue in negotiations with Syria," implying that land was less of an issue. Saguy, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, added that any solution to the water problem will be resolved in the context of an Israeli-Syrian-Turkish agreement. With regard to Syria's demand for return of the Golan Heights, Saguy noted, "if Israel is satisfied, it will return all territory."

Al Hayat reported Nov. 2 that, in an attempt to encourage Syrian flexibility in water deals with Israel, the United States had asked Ankara to negotiate with Damascus for a final statement on Turkey and Syria sharing the Euphrates' waters. Syria has been at odds with Turkey over its control of the Euphrates upstream. Al Hayat's sources said that Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem told Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa that Ankara is willing to discuss the water issue when at the upcoming meeting in Damascus of officials from both countries.

Golan water resources are key to a future resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Any official peace agreement will have to address water issues. The source of the water Israel seeks to secure lies within the Golan region. Saguy's comments are directed at those involved in the formal peace process who have equated land with security. Specifically, Saguy said, "the security arrangements are a lot easier" than water issues.

Militarily, the Golan Heights offer little advantage. Israeli military doctrine is based on mobile air-land warfare. At best, the Golan provides some security from modern Syrian artillery. It is not ideal ground for conducting mobile defensive operations because it forces defenders to operate with their backs to a steep escarpment. Syrian armor descending the face of the Golan would be extremely vulnerable to Israeli gunners on the other side of the Jordan. Obviously, there is some value to the Golan, but it is far from an indispensable strategic asset.

Water, on the other hand, does matter. By abandoning the superficial, but highly emotionally charged, issue of occupying the Golan and by raising this strategic water issue, Saguy and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak are making a serious step forward toward negotiating a formal peace.

This step forward exemplifies the pitfalls of pushing ahead the formal peace process.

The sides have to cut through potentially politically destabilizing concerns - explicitly addressing in a formal peace agreement issues about which they had implicit understandings - just to reach a point where they must deal with the real divisive issues. This is a positive sign for commitment to the peace process, but now the hard part begins. Barak must convince the Israelis that water matters more than land, while also brokering a deal with Syrians and Turks. A look at Israel's complicated water issues will illustrate why the Golan water situation is much more complicated than security arrangements.

The Golan provides more than 12 percent of Israel's water requirements, estimated at 1.8 billion cubic meters per year. Israel consumes 122 million cubic meters from the Al-Hasbani River, 121 million cubic meters from the Banias River and Mt. Hermon, in addition to the many springs in the Golan. The rest of Israel's water comes from a few principal sources which, without the Golan, would be insufficient to sustain it: the Coastal Aquifer, the Mountain Aquifer, the Lake Kinneret (the biblical Sea of Galilee) basin and the Yarkon-Taninim aquifer.

The Coastal Aquifer supplies about 1700 wells, but contains poor quality water and is continually deteriorating due to waste produced from crowded urban centers. Over-pumping during the past 25 years has caused a drop in the ground water levels and penetration of seawater, resulting in salinization of the aquifer's western edge.

The Mountain Aquifer contains very high quality water but its use has not been expanded for households so as to prevent a dependency on it as the exclusive future water source for the population of the coastal region.

The Lake Kinneret basin supplies most of Israel's water. The water levels have been lower than usual since Israel's 1998-1999 drought. 500 million cubic meters of Israel's water comes from the Jordan River and its sources. 300 million cubic meters flow from streams originating on the Golan Heights, which drain into the Jordan and Kinneret. In accord with a 1994 peace agreement, Israel shares the Jordan River's waters with Jordan.

A recent report from Israel's hydrology service indicates Israel's water supply is steadily dwindling after the recent drought. The flow of the Banias spring, the source of the Jordan River, has reached its lowest level ever measured - 4 cubic meters per second. The Shamir, Mousreif, and Fit springs in the Golan Heights have dried up. Also, the water level of the Kinneret is at its lowest since measurement began, and is dropping two centimeters a day. The recent drought and the continued pumping of the Yarkon-Taninim aquifer, Israel's principal reservoir of ground water, resulted in a sharp drop in the water level. In the Petah Tikvah area, the water level dropped to 80 centimeters below the planned minimum, causing fear that this level could expose the aquifer to salinization.

The water coming from Golan sources is critical. Israel will have to strike some sort of deal that allows them to continue utilizing that water or else sack the peace process and maintain its occupation on the Golan. Thus, Saguy's comment about an Israel-Turkey-Syria water deal coupled with Ankara's willingness to discuss the issue may be the solution to the water issues in the region and the stalled peace process.

Israel and Turkey have recently hinted at water cooperation. On Oct. 25, Barak traveled to Ankara to discuss defense and water issues. The next day Haaretz reported that Israel's Finance Ministry is examining the feasibility of transporting 2,000 tons of Turkish water to Israel. Getting water from Turkey, while expensive, would not be difficult for Israel. Pipes can be laid under the Mediterranean, or water can be imported in barges. And, if Syria would cooperate, pipes could be laid across land. However, interests could better be served by an Israel-Syria-Turkey agreement.

Syria has expressed fear in past months that Turkey is using its control over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (Syria's two main sources of water) as a political lever. With Turkish-Israeli water cooperation in the works, Syria may have a chance to deal with Turkey about the Euphrates. If Syria misses that chance, it would face a situation where two of its neighbors with extremely powerful militaries may be working together to control water. A three-way compromise could be the only way to achieve a peace deal. If the Turks are willing to cooperate under U.S. pressure, we may actually see some real movement in the stagnate peace process between Israel and Syria.

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