by David Harris
JERUSALEM, July 5 (Xinhua) -- A possible solution to
a territorial dispute over a small piece of land between Israel, Lebanon and
Syria could have major positive repercussions for regional peace, a leading
Israeli analyst told Xinhua on Sunday.
A report of Israeli daily Ha'aretz on Sunday confirms
what analysts have suspected for some time -- that Saudi Arabia and the United
States are jointly pressuring Syria to demarcate its border with Lebanon in the
area known as the Shaba Farms.
The 22-square km mountainous ridge and valley was
deemed by the UN as occupied by Israel in the wake of the 1967 War. The UN and
Israel regarded Shaba as being Syrian territory.
However, in the wake of the Israeli withdrawal from
Lebanon in 2000, both Lebanon and Syria maintained the land was Lebanese.
Yet the UN Security Council had reaffirmed its
opinion that Shaba rightfully belongs to Syria, when it issued a statement in
June 2000. Despite that, the UN and the international community have called at
various times for Lebanon and Syria to determine where the border between them
should be drawn.
A key reason for trying to resolve the issue is that
the Syrian-- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah says it has continued legitimacy to
attack Israel so long as Israel continues to occupy Shaba -- what it calls
occupied Lebanese territory.
The Lebanese-based movement with its own militia is
also a key player on the political scene in Beirut. However, its defeat in the
June 7 general election has given the Lebanese government the chance to call
Should Syria agree to a demarcation of the border
with Lebanon, it could neutralize the Israeli claim that Shaba was Syrian
territory and that a withdrawal must be carried out only in the course of
negotiations with Damascus, then Israel would be asked by the international
community to move its forces out of any occupied areas of Shaba.
At that point, Hezbollah's argument regarding attacks
on Israel would be nullified, Syria would be indicating to Hezbollah it does not
favor strikes against Israel, Lebanese government would be given greater
legitimacy and all of those factors could be a prelude to negotiations between
Israel on the one hand and both Syria and Lebanon on the other.
"The idea is quite superb, the question is how it
will be implemented," said Professor Moshe Maoz of the Department of Islamic and
Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
This is the latest sign that the Obama administration
is working closely with moderate Arab states on a regional solution to the
Israeli-Arab conflict and not just focusing on the Palestinian issue.
U.S. President Barack Obama said publicly that he
favors much of the Arab Peace Initiative, which was originally proposed by the
Saudis in 2002. The plan calls on Israel to withdraw from all the land it took
during the 1967 War in exchange for a normalization of relations with the Arab
world, and possibly with the broader coalition of 57 Muslim states.
"This is part of the U.S. effort to bring Syria into
the pragmatic camp and it will also force Israel to enter talks with Syria,"
Syria and Israel have been involved in on-and-off
indirect negotiations in recent months under Turkish mediation. While former
U.S. President George W. Bush was not particularly supportive of an
Israeli-Syrian parley, Obama said he will gladly facilitate or back any talks
between Israel and the Arab world.
While Israeli-Syrian talks are relatively
straightforward to reboot, the Israeli-Lebanese track has always been much
Israeli forces were in Lebanon as recently as 2006 in
a bloody summer war with Hezbollah, which followed about two decades of Israeli
occupation of southern Lebanon that came to an end in 2000.
These operations have left a generation of Lebanese
Muslims and Christians highly critical of Israel. Publicly at least, the
country's Prime Minister Saad Hariri has ruled out any talks with Israel, though
Israeli analysts who believe that is merely a position adopted for the benefit
of his own electorate say that behind closed doors, Hariri could well be ready
to speak to Israel.
Yet even though Hariri is very much a part of the
pro-Western, anti-Syria camp, he would still have to wait for the nod from Syria
before entering any negotiations with Israel. Syrian opinion still carries
weight in Lebanon, even though Syrian troops officially withdrew from Lebanon in
2005 after an occupation that lasted about 30 years.
That approval may only come after Syria is at an
advanced stage of negotiations with Israel for the handover of the Golan
Heights, the much larger territory that Israel has occupied since 1967.
While much has been made of the hawkish stance of
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he has negotiated with Syria in the
past -- when he was prime minister in the late 1990s, he sent U.S. businessman
Ronald Lauder to Damascus for secret talks with then President Hafez