Importance of the Golan Heights

The Middle East, particularly Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Palestine, have a long history of irritants that fuel water wars. These issues have created violence on many levels. To understand the Middle East, particularly Israel and its relations with its neighbors, it is important to understand the role of water in the area. Recently, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared in response to a suggestion by President Obama of the United States that there would be no going back to the pre-1967 war boundary lines with Israel’s neighbors. Many experts wondered whether the Golan Heights could be given up because it would leave Israel, particularly Jerusalem, indefensible. More important than the strategic advantage of the Golan Heights is the water security it affords Israel. The eastern mountain ridge of the Golan Heights comprises the watershed of Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee), which provides Israel with 30 percent of its water supply. Syrian control of the watershed could contaminate the lake and enable Damascus to divert the water resources of the lake, cutting off water to Israel. The backdrop of Damascus’s track record as a serial violator of commitments to other nations, including Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Israel stands in stark contrast to their promises to adhere to treaties. The belief of those in the UN, President Obama, and other global organizations and policy makers that Syria has launched a strategy of peace should be assessed against the background of the absence of comprehensive peace between Syria and its Muslim neighbors. Therefore, the comments of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to President Obama recently are able to be judged from a better perspective — partially as a stance to protect Israel’s water security and national security interests.

An examination of the track record of security guarantees issued by the U.S., and by previous global powers, demonstrates that they do not possess automaticity or specificity for effective implementation. The vast majority of security guarantees have not been implemented; the ones that have been implemented failed miserably. As an example, the U.S. issued a presidential (Executive) guarantee in 1957 to coax Israel into a full withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. American failure to implement the guarantees when Egypt, Syria and Jordan declared a war on Israel in 1967 was a trigger for the Six Day War. Therefore, security guarantees have not constituted a credible insurance policy, but have instead produced a dangerous delusion, sacrificing long-term national security for a short-lived false sense of security. In relation to this issue, Israel was initially provided a military advantage through capture of the Golan Heights, which is about 3,000 meters above sea level. It could be argued that with current military technology such as spy satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles, and so forth that this tactical advantage is no longer necessary. In contrast, the possible rupture of either energy supplies, in terms of electricity, fuel supply lines or communications, or other infrastructure and their cascading failure interdependencies, is likely not seen by the Israeli government as a wise decision to barter the strategic military nature of the Golan Heights away. If it were willing to vacate the heights, this would indicate that Israel could strengthen the relationship between the two governments, but only if Syria recognized Israel’s right to exist. Both components will be necessary for a lasting peace. Conjointly, with the resistance of Hamas and Hezbollah to recognize Israel and their ties to Iran, the water issue will likely remain the primary obstacle to lasting peace.

For the Middle East and Southeast Asia, developing new resources will require technological solutions to increase water supplies such as desalination, water-water reuse, and so forth, but also, effective management of current resources such as transferring water from wet to dry zones is also necessary. Both types of measures will require significant financial investment. According to the U.S. State Department, billions of dollars (USD) of U.S. military aid has been given to Iraq ($6.5), Israel ($2.75), Egypt ($1.75), Pakistan ($1.6), Jordan ($0.3), Palestine ($0.1), and Yemen ($0.7) USD; additional aid is even larger in some instances. If this aid, even portions of it, were proportionately distributed for development of water resource programs and initiatives such as construction of a desalination plants on the Mediterranean, the development of these new water resources would enhance economic development, reduce unemployment, reduce citizen stress, improve public health, and overall, enhance security and stability of the immediate region. However, this is likely to idealistic because it would build trust and because it ignores the political self-interest factor of nations, politicians, and corporations. Additional background and information can be found in Water Security: Conflicts, Threats, Policies.