How to bring Syria to the negotiating table

by Ayoob Kara
15 April 2010
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JERUSALEM - It is a well-known fact that Israel’s calmest border is its border with Syria. However, this calm can only be considered a tense ceasefire. It is clearly in the interest of Israel and the international community to strive for a positive peace agreement between Israel and Syria. Lately Syria has begun to show signs that it wants to strengthen its ties with the West. We must do what we can to strengthen this trend.

The importance of these developments for the region is crucial. One may assume that a Syria which is favourable towards peace and normalisation with Israel would also support broader efforts for regional stability.

Regional peace is a sacred goal for me and since I have been appointed Deputy Minister for Regional Development I have decided to advance the issue of peace with Syria. As there are no official channels of communication between the two countries and relations are tense, a different and creative approach had to be chosen—the advancement of common economic and humanitarian interests.

Following a series of meetings with top political and security officials in Israel, the Red Cross and the United Nations, I was able to facilitate the opening of the Kunetra border crossing in the north, not only for the transport of apples and exchanges of students but also for humanitarian purposes. This is an important and unprecedented development and this year a record number of people, 600 in total, crossed the border into Syria, including, for the first time, Druze women who had previously left their families in Syria to marry Druze men from the Golan and had not seen their families in many years.

The stories are extremely moving. For example, Zina Halabi from the Druze village Masada in the Golan who has not seen her family for 30 years, travelled to Syria to visit them. Najua Amashe from Bukata, also in the Golan, who lost practically every member of her family in Syria and is also a widow, crossed the border to visit her family’s graves. Rima Hasson from Bukata, whom I had assisted 14 years ago in coming as a bride to Israel, returned to Syria to care for her sick father. These are just three stories out of hundreds of people who crossed the border and in so doing became, in essence, Israeli ambassadors to Syria. In their encounters with Syrians they talk about the efforts undertaken to make their visit possible, about the treatment they receive as citizens of the state and thus they help remove the threatening mask from the “Zionist enemy”.

The economic dimension is equally important as it increases the incentives for both Syria and Israel to join the negotiation table. In the last few years tons of apples have been crossing the border and this year alone 10,000 tons of apples were transported into Syria and on to other Arab countries. It is my intention to increase exports by—among other things—importing water from Syria. This initiative was widely publicised two months ago when it was disclosed that there is a pipe carrying water from the Spring of El Tapuha in Syria to the village of Majdal Shams in the Golan. In western Syria there are significant water reserves and in the near future a delegation from the Golan Heights is scheduled to travel there to conduct negotiations about importing water. These waters will be used for agriculture and are expected to increase the production of apples for export tenfold, thereby creating a cyclical and mutually beneficial process.

Such economic and humanitarian activities are creating cracks in the great wall between Israel and Syria and hasten the day when real negotiations for peace will be underway.

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* Ayoob Kara is Israeli Deputy Minister for Regional Development. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 15 April 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
 
 
 
 
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