The regional approach Defense Minister Ehud Barak is so fond of talking about has revived the long-stagnant Lebanese track.
In the case of Lebanon, Israel is being asked to withdraw to the Blue Line - the boundary recognized by the international community as the withdrawal line from Lebanon in 2000 - before the negotiating teams hold their first meeting.
During his first visit to Jerusalem, the American envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, asked that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abide by the promise of his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, to withdraw from the northern part of the village of Ghajar. This was part of UN Resolution 1701 which put an end to the Second Lebanon War.
The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is showing special interest in any move that can strengthen the status of Fuad Siniora's government, as an appendix to former American president George W. Bush's democratization policy.
Officials in Washington believe that a withdrawal to the Blue Line (including the northern sector of Ghajar village and the Shaba Farms area) would pull the carpet out from under the feet of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Nasrallah misses no opportunity to draw attention to the fact that Siniora's American friends are not capable of putting an end to the Israeli presence in southern Lebanon.
Israeli analysts agreed that a withdrawal from Ghajar would strengthen Siniora's government in the elections that took place at the beginning of last month. Last May, a short while before he paid his first visit to Obama, Netanyahu was ready to give the American president Ghajar as housewarming gift to mark his re-entry into the premiership.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini during his visit to Rome that the Israeli government understands that it is important to complete the move before the polls open in Beirut.
In the end, however, the prime minister decided that he had his hands full enough with dismantling the outposts and freezing the building in the West Bank. Why should he now have to deal with demonstrations and petitions to the High Court of Justice against the transfer of the village to the Lebanese?
The residents of Ghajar who, like Syrian President Bashar Assad, are members of the Alawi sect, are adamant about their Syrian identity and demand that they be returned to Syrian sovereignty. They will no doubt find interest in a new study relating to their village that will be published by an Israeli scholar in the upcoming edition of The Middle East Journal.
The study, by Dr. Asher Kaufman, questions the reliability of the Blue Line which has marked the partition of the village since the withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces from Lebanon in May 2000. Kaufman, who teaches history at the University of Notre Dame in the United States, is writing a book about the tri-border region between Syria, Lebanon and Israel. In the book, he argues that the line is wrong from the cartographic and historical points of view and he brings maps and documents from various periods to illustrate the points.
Kaufman contends that there has never at any time been an agreement about the exact location of the boundary with regard to Ghajar and its vicinity or the area of the Shaba Farms. In the case of the Shaba Farms, he says, "most maps placed them within Syrian sovereignty even if in practice locals perceived the region to be under Lebanese control."
In the case of Ghajar, even maps produced prior to 1967 have been extremely inconsistent, placing the village occasionally in Syria, at different times in Lebanon and less frequently, divided between the two states. Kaufman therefore concludes that "any attempt to determine where the boundary line lies between Syria and Lebanon ... is, in essence, arbitrary."
When Ghajar was under full Syrian control before 1967, Kaufman further argues, it included "both sections of the village that in 2000 were divided by the Blue Line" - both the southern section that was annexed by Israel and the northern part that Israel is being asked to return to Lebanon.
"This is clearly seen in reports of, and sketches made by the U.S. Embassy in Beirut that tried to decipher the problems of sovereignty in the tri-border region during the 'water wars' of the early 1960s between Israel and its Arab neighbors," he writes.
Kaufman adds that "the village has been divided into two neighborhoods that in 2000 were mistakenly thought to be two different villages - Ghajar in the south and al-Wazzani in the north." He points out that there never was a village by the name of al-Wazzani, but rather "a small community called al-Wazzani, more known as Arab al-Luweiza," which is located across from Ghajar and west of the Hatzbani river.
According to the scholar, these facts were not known to the UN's cartographers when they drew the Blue Line through the village of Ghajar. The decision to partition the village, he says, was a product of heavy pressure to finish marking the line of the Israeli withdrawal.
Kaufman ponders whether time could be turned back and the entire village be left as a deposit in Israeli hands until such time as an agreement is reached with Damascus. However, "with the belligerent atmosphere between Israel and Lebanon," he writes, "it will take much effort on Lebanon's part to 'give up' territory that was liberated - to use the Lebanese term - and return it to Israeli control."
Kaufman concludes with the hope that, "the time will come when Syria and Israel reach a peace accord that will involve an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Then it will be possible for the residents of Ghajar to take a bus to Quneitra in Syria and to go shopping in the mall in Kiryat Shmona."
Breaking the silence in Congress
Officials of the Prime Minister's Bureau are used to seeing letters from the U.S. Congress containing petitions of support for Israel. A letter of protest from six Congressmen about the siege in Gaza therefore came, no doubt, as a surprise.
The six remind Netanyahu that Congress recently approved Obama's request to allocate $300 million to provide reconstruction and humanitarian aid to Gaza following Operation Cast Lead. The congressmen first make it clear that they understand Israel's security needs but then they share with the prime minister their impressions of their visit to Gaza, which they describe as being in "dire" condition - 3,900 families living in makeshift shelters, 25,000 in damaged buildings, and many schools, kindergartens and hospitals in need of repair.
Basic infrastructure, including water and sewage, are also in need of urgent repair, they point out.
A Western diplomat last week reported that the ruins are still standing untouched. On the other hand, he witnessed a scene where Hamas received a large supply of cement through the underground tunnels and sold the remnants on the black market.
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