ISRAEL: Double talk to Syria, and tax benefits to Golan


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A previous post here discussed the recent exchange of threats between Israel and Syria and the chances of regional war. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned Syrian President Bashar Assad that attacking Israel would cost him his regime. Although there is speculation that Lieberman’s words were really aimed at officials in the political system who support talks with Syria, this didn’t help. It also enraged the political system. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a reassuring statement -- and orders that ministers stay off the topic.

Good advice. Next thing you know, Israel’s pushing legislation for tax benefits to some 30 Israeli communities in the Golan Heights. Most Israelis do not view the Golan as occupied territory or even controversial. Israel annexed the land in 1981, captured from Syria in 1967. The move was not internationally recognized.
Does this reassure Syria? Hardly. This is proof that Israel does not want peace, Syrian officials said Wednesday. But it does reassure Israelis opposed to a peace treaty with Syria that would cost Israel the Golan. Lawmaker Carmel Shama of the Likud Party, who chairs the parliament’s Golan lobby, said the bill makes a clear statement about the future of the Golan. He also said the vote heralds the disintegration of the main opposition party, Kadima.


The vote was as much about politics as regional diplomacy.

Kadima issued a statement criticizing Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Netanyahu for refusing to postpone the vote until tension with Syria eases. One would expect those in charge of Israeli policy ‘to put political considerations aside and stop playing with fire at Israel’s expense,’ it said. Left-wing leader Haim Oron asked Barak if he was voting for the bill just to embarrass Kadima. More to the point, he called the move a reckless deceit: ‘You applied the bill on the Golan Heights but there are no Druze communities here ... who are you deceiving?’

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Assad by phone Wednesday that if Israel made the mistake of starting a war, it should be put an end to once and for all.

But some have other ideas for relations between Syria and Israel. Ayoub Kara, Israel’s deputy minister of regional development, is promoting a plan under which Israel would buy water that flows out of Syria and put it to agricultural use in Golan villages, mostly Druze (the same ones that won’t be getting those tax benefits).

‘I believe in economic peace between Israel and Syria,’ he said, ‘without getting into the political issue.’ Both sides will gain, said Kara, who presented his initiative to U.S. Ambassador to Israel James B. Cunningham (and also raised the predicament of Ghajar). Kara, himself a Druze, believes the idea can work, just like the occasional apple export to Syria (yep) and the humanitarian and religious visits he’s helped arrange. A delegation on his behalf will travel to Syria soon to discuss the idea, he said.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem