TEL AVIV // An Israeli plan to drill for oil in the Golan Heights aims to entrench the country's hold on a territory Israel annexed from Syria despite international opposition, analysts said yesterday.
Experts say the Israeli decision to issue its first oil-exploration permit in the Golan to a settler-run company, was at least partly driven by the ultranationalist ideology of Israel's minister of water and energy resources, Uzi Landau, in a bid to convey a message that the Golan would not easily be returned to Syria.
The Israelis also appear to be taking advantage of the violence and chaos in Syria.
The timing of the decision "is directly related to the fact that the Syrian government is not free to deal with this problem and that the Syrian army cannot pose a threat to Israel right now", said Yaron Ezrahi, an Israeli political analyst.
"This is mostly an Israeli ploy to deepen its commitment to the occupied Golan Heights," said Mr Ezrahi. "It's part of the right's political programme."
The Israeli decision, which was announced late on Thursday, is likely draw into condemnation from the United States and other allies just weeks before Barack Obama, the US president, is due to visit the country for the first time since taking office in 2009.
Israel captured the Golan Heights during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when it also took over the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The country annexed the Golan in 1981, although that move was never recognised by the international community.
It has not annexed the West Bank despite massively expanding its Jewish settlement enterprise there, and pulled out of the Gaza Strip in 2005.
The country had considered exploring for oil in the Golan previously, but chose not to carry out drilling to avoid clouding prospects of peace talks with Syria.
They held four rounds of indirect negotiations through Turkey in 2008 but these were suspended after Israel's invasion of Gaza in December that year.
The Israeli government may now view chances of renewing negotiations as dim, analysts said.
Yossi Alpher, a veteran commentator on Israeli politics and diplomacy, said: "There is no peace process with Syria, Syria is in a state of chaos and appears to be breaking up as a sovereign state - all this might have persuaded even centrist Israeli energy ministers to grant the oil licence."
The licence was granted to the Israeli subsidiary of US-based Genie Energy, headquartered in New Jersey, which is associated with several known pro-settler figures. Effie Eitam, a former Israeli minister who lives on a Golan settlement, runs Genie's Israeli business, and the company's advisers include the British media mogul Rupert Murdoch and Dick Cheney, who served as the US vice president under George W Bush from 2001 to 2009.
Geological testing by Israel had indicated a potential for "significant" oil deposits in the area, according to the Israeli business newspaper Globes.
The exploration licence is unlikely to upset Israelis, partly because the plateau is viewed as far less politically sensitive than the West Bank, where the Israeli occupation and settlement is hindering Palestinian statehood. Furthermore, polls have shown that most Israelis would oppose returning the Golan, which has become a major domestic tourist destination with its verdant nature trails, vineyards, orchards and a ski resort.
More than 20,000 settlers live in at least 30 Jewish communities in the Golan, where an approximately equal number of Syrians - mostly from the Druze sect - also reside. Israel views the high-altitude plateau as a major security asset because it gives the country a vantage point for monitoring Syrian army movements and serves as a natural blockade against any military threats from Syria, with which Israel has fought three wars since its creation in 1948. The Golan also provides about a third of Israel's fresh water supply and is the site of a major Israeli wind turbine project.
Experts say exploration for oil in the Golan may spur a potentially explosive situation should significant amounts be discovered.
"If Israelis will find oil, I assume there will be a greater degree of aggression on the part of the Syrians to restore their sovereignty over the Golan," Mr Ezrahi said.
While Israel's oil exploration may not deter future peace talks with Syria, it might stir tensions even if a pact is reached between the two countries, experts said. Israeli papers reported this month that the Egyptian minister of petroleum, Osama Kamal, has charged that Israel owes Egypt about US$480 billion (Dh1.76 trillion) for oil pumped from the Sinai Peninsula in the years after Israel captured the area in 1967. Israel returned Sinai to Egypt under a 1979 peace pact.