Sheba’a Farms: Hail Mary Pass?

by Steven R. Corman

At a conference two and a half years ago I met Sami Hajjar. He was born in Lebanon, and has served in a number of diplomatic posts in the Middle East. Later he was on the faculty at the U.S. Army War College and a member of its Strategic Studies Institute. At the conference he told me his theory that a key to peace between Israel and its neighbors was a disputed region called Sheba’a Farms. Sheba'a Farms

The area was captured by Israel in 1967 during the Three Day War. Israel has considered the territory to be part of Syria, though Lebanon claims it is part of their country. Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 did not include this area. For this reason Hezbollah believes Israel is still occupying Lebanon, and says it is engaging in guerrilla resistance against an invader, not terrorism, when it attacks Isreal.

According to Sami, this is the string which, if pulled, can unravel the entire knot of conflict between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. In a 2002 monograph, he says:

The Sheba’a issue is more than a legal question involving the right of sovereignty over the disputed area; it is the hook used by Lebanon and Syria to link the Lebanon-Israel track to the Syrian-Israel track in the Middle East peace process. It involves the larger question of a peace settlement to end the Israeli occupation of Lebanese and Syrian lands leading to a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Hizballah is the tactical instrument contributing to that end. Understanding the complexities of these relationships is critical to finding a resolution of what the United Statesand Israel regard as Hizballah’s terrorism.

Ambiguity about the borders between the three countries has given Syria leverage in peace negotiations with Israel, and it has resisted settlement of the border issues in the area for that reason. The border issue is quite complicated and is explained in detail in the monograph.

Sami argues that the fixing of the borders and the withdrawal of the Israelis would have a number of beneficial effects. First it would deny Hezbollah its main justification for continued attacks on Israel, and put pressure on the Lebanese government to reign them in as a regularized, unarmed political party. Second it would remove the last remaining territorial dispute between Israel and Lebanon. Third, because of this it would simplify negotiations between Syria and Israel by removing the “Lebanon card,” and allow those talks to focus on return of the Golan Heights.

When I first met Sami and heard this theory, he was very frustrated that nobody in the Bush administration would listen to his argument, which to me (an interested onlooker but non-expert in the Israel-Arab conflict) seemed pretty plausible. Now it appears that something has changed, probably owing to the Bush Administration’s 11th hour effort to make progress on Middle East peace.

Today ynet Israel News reports that the U.S. is backing an Israeli withdrawal from Sheba’a Farms:

Sources in Lebanon were quoted by Al-Hayat as saying that Israel’s possible withdrawal from the Shebaa Farms area, which was captured by Israel from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967, was one of the focal points during the recent meetings US President George W. Bush held with German, Italian, British and French leaders while touring Europe.

The sources said Washington was more understanding of Lebanon’s position on the issue, which is supported by the Arab League, the European Union and UN chief Ban Ki-moon, and did not rule out the possibility that the US would press Israel to withdraw from the Shebaa Farms.

Also today, MEMRI quotes Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Miqdad as saying the Sheba’a Farms is “completely Lebanese,” and indicating a willingness to work with Lebanon to fix the borders.

If Sami’s theory is right, this “significant turnaround in the United States’ position” (as Lebanese officials described it in the ynet article) could be a Hail Mary pass from the Bush administration with an actual chance of a last-second touchdown.

UPDATE:  Today (17 June 08) MEMRI reports that Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit is behind the Sheba’a Farms initiative.