A TINY, disputed parcel of land called Shebaa Farms, located where Israel, Syria, and Lebanon converge, has long been used as a pretext for armed confrontation. But Israel may now have a chance to remove this sliver of real estate as a source of conflict. This is an opportunity that should not be missed.
Shebaa Farms is currently occupied by Israel but claimed by Lebanon. When demarcating the border between Lebanon and Israel in 2000, after Israel ended an 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon, the United Nations ruled that Shebaa Farms was part of the Golan Heights, a part of Syria annexed by Israel. The fate of Shebaa Farms, then, would have to be determined in peace negotiations between Israel and Syria.
Earlier this month, Spain's foreign minister, Angel Moratinos, sent a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon describing talks he held recently in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Moratinos said Assad is now willing to have Shebaa Farms transferred to the custody of the UN - even before the world body completes its current work of demarcating the border between Syria and Lebanon.
Assad's offer may seem at first glance to be little more than a ploy to embarrass Israel and to pretend - at a moment when Syria's heavy hand on Lebanon is provoking grave tensions there - that Syria respects Lebanese sovereignty and independence. Seen from this perspective, Assad's gesture might appear a contemporary version of the colonialist mapping decisions of Britain and France, who drew an imprecise border between Syria and Lebanon in 1923, apportioning land that was not theirs to give in the first place.
Indeed, Israel's initial response to the Moratinos letter was a mixture of rejection and complaint. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government objected that Moratinos had not consulted Israel about his initiative and derided the Syrian proposal as an attempt to put pressure on Israel to give up land without receiving anything in return. For the past year, Olmert's position has been that Israel will transfer Shebaa Farms to Lebanon - the presumed rightful owner - only after the Shi'ite militia Hezbollah obeys a UN resolution calling for the disarming of all Lebanese militias. To cede that territory to Lebanon without such a concession from Hezbollah, Israel's foreign ministry has cautioned, would be to give Hezbollah a "prize," gratis.
But if Israel were to seize the opportunity broached in the Moratinos letter, it could call Assad's bluff and Hezbollah's. Since 2000, Hezbollah has justified armed struggle against Israel on the grounds that Israel is still an occupying power on Lebanese soil. If Shebaa Farms belonged to Syria, as the UN ruled, then Hezbollah's rationale for refusing to disarm in accordance with the UN's resolution would be undermined. So Assad has been pretending he is willing to recognize Lebanese sovereignty over Shebaa Farms while postponing any transference of title to an indefinite future.
By turning Shebaa Farms over to the UN, Israel could serve its own interests, enhance the prospects for stability in Lebanon, unmask Assad, and establish a precedent for ending an occupation by diplomatic means. This is exactly what Israel should do.