Israel has announced that it will begin to allow oil drilling in the Golan Heights, as Syria’s civil war continues to rage across the increasingly volatile border.
A permit has been issued by Israel’s Energy and Water Resources Ministry to the New Jersey-based Genie Energy, the first company to be awarded a license to drill since Israeli Energy Minister Uzi Landau opened the area to energy exploration in May 2012, following the discovery of potentially large quantities of oil and gas in the southern Golan.
On the surface, the move is controversial. The Golan Heights, captured from Syria during the 1967 war and annexed by Israel in 1981, is considered an occupied territory under international law. With U.S. president Barack Obama‘s first visit to Israel scheduled for next month, the wisdom of moving ahead with a plan that is sure to provoke wide international condemnation is not readily apparent. Israel was heavily criticized in 2010 after its Interior Ministry announced a plan for new Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, coinciding with a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. In the aftermath of the visit, it was clear that U.S. officials did not appreciate the concomitance of provocative announcements with high-profile U.S. diplomatic visits. This most recent announcement, coming the same week newly-appointed Secretary of State John Kerry unexpectedly postponed his own visit to Israel, does not give the impression that the Israeli government is going out of its way to avoid a 2010 repeat.
It is not a stretch to imagine that, once again, the Israeli government has relegated diplomatic concerns to the back seat as it attends to its security priorities: in this case, the steadily deteriorating situation in Syria which has begun spilling across the border into the Golan. As gunfire and mortars have come flying over the demilitarized border controlled by Israel and with a Syrian military bombardment in the ceasefire zone last Friday, the violence seems only barely contained.
Issuing drilling permits in such a volatile area and at such a seemingly inopportune time is, ironically, the perfect set of circumstances for Israel to move forward with such an action. It allows it to assert its control over the Golan and, with surprising smaller actions such as the admittance of seven injured Syrian opposition fighters to an Israeli hospital, makes its stance against Bashar al-Assad unmistakable. It is also a firm dismissal of Israel-Syria peace talks over the Golan which have languished over the past two decades, allowing Israel to maintain the annexed Golan as a buffer zone for the foreseeable future. As Israel looks ahead to a post-Assad Syria — and more broadly to an increasingly unpredictable post-Arab Spring Middle East — the actions of the Netanyahu government demonstrate that international opinion takes a secondary role (if that) in its geopolitical calculations. The primary concern has always been to leverage Israel’s own position, but, in this case, Israel can likely afford the cost in international condemnation, especially when its rivals have little means or opportunity to respond. Unlike the truly explosive issue of the settlements in the West Bank, Israel’s energy exploration in the Golan is unlikely to sustain the world’s attention — especially with the humanitarian catastrophe taking place just over the border.