EIN GEV, Israel -- Rising imposingly to Israel's north and east, the Golan Heights claims center stage in a drawn-out, frustrating search to end a half-century of conflict between the Jewish state and Syria.
This is the terrain that comes to mind when envoys in the Middle East peace process try to persuade the Syrians to make a deal with the Israelis, as Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright did yesterday in her visit to Damascus.
But an important, seldom-spotlighted part of the struggle is a narrow strip of land near this kibbutz along the Sea of Galilee. At stake is access to a reliable flow of the Middle East's most precious resource: fresh water.
When it captured the Golan Heights during the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel also gained full control of the freshwater lake, and the waters that flow into it, which together supply a third of Israel's water needs.
Now Syria is demanding back not only the Golan but also land along Galilee's eastern shoreline, which could give Damascus crucial leverage over Israel's water supply. The demand has contributed to a months-long impasse between the two countries that blocks their return to the peace table.
"Water is an existential issue for the parties to the conflict -- and more so for Israel, because we can't exist without the Sea of Galilee," says Amikan Nachmani, an expert on the politics of water at Israel's Bar Ilan University.
By taking the Golan in the 1967 war, Israel gained a perch that Syrians had used to shell Israeli villages below. It also gained a commanding, panoramic view of any threatening Syrian military buildup near the Israeli border. But water also played an important role in the tension that led to the war and in Israel's reluctance since to part with its prize.
"There is no doubt that the war was preceded by a period of military escalation. Part of that was relevant to the issue of water," Nachmani says. Counting the large mountain aquifer under the West Bank, Israel draws about half of its water from conquered territory.
Like so many issues in the peace process, this one's history is deeply rooted in the past actions of colonial masters.
When Britain took over Palestine after World War I, it gained the Sea of Galilee and a 30-foot strip of land less than 10 miles long that prevented French-occupied Syria from gaining access to the lake.
In the 1948 Israeli-Arab war after the partition of Palestine and the birth of Israel, the Syrian army reached the northeast shore of the lake. A postwar demilitarized zone was created on the southeastern shoreline below Ein Gev.
In the 1950s, Israel infuriated the Arabs by beginning work on a series of pipes and pumps to divert water from the Jordan River north of the lake to areas far to the south to aid the growing agricultural zone in the Negev desert. It ended up tapping the northwest corner of the Galilee.
Through a series of skirmishes during the decade, Syria moved into a third of the demilitarized zone. Jordan, Syria and Lebanon then began their own project to divert the headwaters of the Jordan north of Israel. This drew Israeli attacks on Arab construction sites. Skirmishes led to serious confrontations that helped set the hostile scene for the Six-Day War.
When Israeli and Syrian negotiators sat down in 1991 to try to end their state of war, both sides were anxious to shore up future supplies of water.
Syria now relies on water flowing into the Euphrates from Turkey, with whom it has a tense relationship. Syria claims that Turkey releases water at an uneven rate and that much of it arrives polluted.
When negotiators met at Maryland's Wye Plantation in early 1996, Israel brought along experts to work with the Syrians on a possible water-sharing settlement. But Syria wouldn't join in the exercise, recalls Itamar Rabinovich, then Israel's ambassador to Washington and a key figure in the negotiations.
"All they wanted to do was for [Syrian envoy] Walid Mualem to say if Israel and the United States undertake to help Syria with its water problems with Turkey, there will be no water problem between Syria and Israel.
"That, of course, opened a whole can of worms," he says. "The Turkish-Syrian problem is so complex that to make the Israeli-Syrian water issue contingent on a resolution of the Syrian-Turkish [dispute] is to compound the issue."
The Wye talks collapsed that year in the wake of terror attacks that disillusioned Israelis about the peace process. The subsequent election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought no progress over the next three years.
Prospects brightened in May with the election of Ehud Barak, who from a distance exchanged warm expressions of praise with Syrian leader Hafez el Assad.
Barak dropped broad hints that he would pay what is widely acknowledged to be the necessary price of peace with Syria: withdrawal from the Golan Heights. But Barak insisted that Israel would not relinquish control of the Galilee.