Paul Pillar

More Fences

If it is possible to invest in companies that supply fencing material to the Israel government, they should be rated a “buy”. Likewise with any companies that make the components of the barriers that Israel sometimes calls fences but are actually more like walls. We're familiar with the fence/wall that Israel has constructed in the Palestinian-inhabited West Bank and that the Israelis have periodically extended and enhanced. Recently Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu inspected a new fence his government has constructed along the border with Egypt. Now he has announced his intention to construct an enhanced barrier in the Syrian Golan Heights.

The more recent construction is understandable in terms of security incidents that have originated in Egypt or Syria during the past couple of years and have touched Israel. A nation has to protect its borders. And the line between Israel and the Egyptian Sinai actually is an international border. But the fenced line in Syria is not. It is only a cease-fire line left over from previous Israeli-Syrian warfare. Notwithstanding any immediate, tactical security needs that Israel speaks about, the barrier there threatens to become, like the barrier in the West Bank, a steel and concrete monument to indefinite occupation of territory conquered by force of arms.

In 2000, well after the cease-fire line was established, Israel and Syria came tantalizingly close to a peace agreement that would have included return of the Golan Heights to Syria. The negotiations came down to the disposition of a few meters of dirt going back from the water's edge along the northeastern shore of Lake Tiberias. But then Ehud Barak added back a few hundred meters worth of demands that would have negated the principle of respecting the lines that existed before the 1967 war, and the talks collapsed. After that, Israelis settled back into the comfort of the status quo, while the Assads kept the cease-fire line remarkably quiet and the growing dominance of the Right in Israeli politics reduced official Israeli thinking about any return of territory. Reportedly there was another tentative stab at negotiations a couple of years ago before the Arab Spring got under way, but it is questionable whether Netanyahu was ever seriously thinking about returning the Golan.

The Arab Spring has reduced the Israeli comfort level. The turmoil in Syria has been the most intense and bloody manifestation of the region-wide political fervor and change that have given the Israelis several reasons to worry. Whatever new regime emerges from the current civil war will be less predictable than the devils-we-know that the Assads have been, and the new Syrian political order almost certainly will be, like new political orders in other Arab countries, less restrained than the old orders in voicing and acting upon the grievances that all Arabs have with Israel. Then there is the specifically Syrian grievance, which is the continued occupation of the Golan Heights. No Syrian regime can ignore it, and no new Syrian regime is likely to fall into the Assad regime's groove of what amounted to de facto acceptance of the status quo.

So the walking back from those last few meters along the lake, along with later unwillingness to part with the Golan, appears to preclude Israel being able to achieve peace with the last of its immediate neighbors. (There are peace treaties already, of course, with Egypt and Jordan, and relations with Lebanon are likely to follow the lead of relations with Syria.) Fences may be able to keep out infiltrators, but they do not bring peace.