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When Middle East All-Stars play for peace, don't bet on a complete game

Heavy hitters were up to bat last week in another inning of the Middle East peace process ballgame taking place at Shepherdstown, W. Va. First up was Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister who upon election less than a year ago promised a comprehensive Middle East peace within 15 months.

Next was Farouk el-Shara, the Syrian Foreign Minister, pinch-hitting for his boss, Syrian President Hafiz el-Assad. One of Assad's claims to fame is bulldozing the entire town of Hama in 1982 to quell the insurrection of the Muslim Brotherhood.

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And the final person to step up to the plate, although in a somewhat supporting role, was President Bill Clinton. He was again playing host to this game in hopes that a Syrian-Israeli peace deal, the last step to peace between Israel and all of its immediate neighbors (as Lebanon will most likely follow Syria's lead) will allow him to leave office with his name immortalized in diplomatic history.

The West Virginia meeting was the first installment of perhaps many more peace talks. So, what is this new round going to accomplish?

The stubbornness of the former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led to a breakdown between Syrian-Israeli peace talks a while ago. Barak, the most decorated general in Israeli history, is attempting to pick up where he left off to get a deal signed to ensure Israeli security and begin diplomatic ties.

Assad, who is ailing and grooming his son Bashar to succeed him, is asking for nothing less than the entire Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967 and recaptured in 1973.

The problems present here are numerous. They primarily center around land, security, water and, in my opinion, the intentions of the leaders. The Golan Heights, as its name implies, offers a full view of the area surrounding it and is possibly one of the most strategic areas that Israel possesses. In addition, it is home to a number of settlers who are none too pleased about the prospect of having to leave their homes.

Perhaps more important, however, is the issue of water. The Golan Heights runs right up to the border of the Sea of Galilee, one of Israel's primary sources of water. Additionally, the Jordan River runs right through the Heights, and one of the issues on the table is control of this most valuable Middle East resource.

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Will Syria, which controls the headwaters of the Jordan River, be equitable in its distribution of water both to its own water-parched country as well as to Israel? The situation is even more dire for Syria as it stands to lose even more water to the damming of the Euphrates River by its upstream neighbor, Turkey.

Most important, however, are the intentions of each of the countries involved. Israel would love nothing more than to be at peace with its northern neighbor, to not carry back the bodies of soldiers killed in southern Lebanon or be constantly on alert for Katyusha rocket attacks on Golan Heights settlements. And just like Clinton, Barak would love a comprehensive peace plan during his tenure.

What's in it for Syria? An economic relationship with Israel and the U.S. and U.S. foreign aid, but another factor bothers me. Syria has always believed in a "Greater Syria," Esh-Sham, which encompasses all countries in its orbit – Jordan, Israel and Lebanon. In addition, Syria has been one of the most vociferous opponents of peace with Israel. It denounced Egypt during the 1979 Camp David agreements, as well as Jordan during the 1994 peace agreement. Syria – until recently – has always prided itself on never backing down from its stance of not recognizing Israel and championing Arab unity in this matter.

I am very much in favor of peace in the Middle East, but given Syria's less-than-stellar record visa-vis Israel, its critical water shortage and the wild-card of Assad's successor, it seems like a very risky proposition. Seth Wikas, a columnist from Beachwood, Ohio, is a Near Eastern studies major. He can be reached at sawikas@princeton.edu.

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