US Should Recognize Israel’s Sovereignty Over the Golan Heights
Whenever an incident or an idea related to the Middle East arises, former State Department officials are quick to comment. Those who are Arabists can be counted on to be critical of Israel and to dismiss the views of its officials and supporters. What is striking about these people is that a) they are consistently wrong; b) their policies failed and frequently damaged American interests when they were in power; c) they never admit their errors; d) they insist on repeating their mistakes; and e) they advise their successors to adopt their failed policies and criticize them if they do not.
Fear of the Arab reaction to US support for Israel is a staple of Arabist thought. For the last 80-odd years, they’ve been selling the same balderdash — that the Arab world will punish us if we do not abandon Israel. If, however, you look at the trajectory of US relations between Israel and the Arab states over the decades, it is clear that our ties with both have grown stronger, precisely the opposite of what the Arabists predict.
Many of us remember when former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk and other foreign policy brahmins warned of a cataclysm if Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the American embassy there.
Indyk predicted that this would likely spark an explosion of anger in the Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim worlds, and generate a rallying cry for Islamic extremists everywhere. American embassies and American citizens in Muslim countries would likely be targeted by violent demonstrators. Confrontations between Palestinians and Israelis would likely erupt in the West Bank, and the Palestinian security forces would likely stand aside, unable or unwilling to continue cooperating with their Israeli counterparts to tamp down the violence. Hamas might resume rocket attacks from Gaza, but because of fear of an Israeli response, they would more likely seek to stoke the fires of violent resistance in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Arab and Muslim states would likely demand that Trump rescind the decision.
Indyk and others who made similar assertions were a) wrong; b) refused to admit it; and c) are making the same argument regarding the Golan Heights.
In an effort to preempt US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, the Arabist mantra is being repeated. “Like it or not, the Golan Heights are Syrian territory,” Indyk wrote on Twitter. “Israel’s annexation of territory that is not its own is to play with fire for partisan political purposes. No Arab state will accept it.”
As in the case of Jerusalem, however, the Arab states long ago accepted the reality that Israel will retain the Golan Heights, which it has controlled since 1967 and annexed in 1981. They give lip service to Israel’s “occupation” of the Golan but, given that most oppose the Assad regime, Arab leaders have no incentive to back the Syrian dictator’s demands.
Israel negotiated with Syria and offered to give up most of the area in exchange for peace; however, as in negotiations with the Palestinians, the Assads were never interested in peace for any amount of land, and talks failed.
Many Israelis thought the idea of abandoning the Golan was folly given the untrustworthiness of the Assads and the strategic disadvantage it would create, whereby the Syrians would hold the high ground and Israel’s population and industrial centers would be within easy striking distance of terrorists, rockets, and mortars. When serious talks were held in the past, the area was not as developed as it is today, and the danger has grown. Moreover, evacuating the area now would involve uprooting thousands of people and destroying a flourishing regional economy.
The warnings of those who opposed holding talks with Syria have now become a reality. The civil war has decimated the country and exposed its weakness. Without Russian and Iranian support, Assad would have been ousted, and it is conceivable that a more radical or Islamist regime might have taken power. That could still happen in the future. It was Israel’s presence on the Golan and military strength that deterred the Syrians, Iranians, Hezbollah, and ISIS from attacking Israel. With the exception of ISIS, the other actors will remain threats for years to come.
Israel is especially concerned with the Iranian role in Syria. Tehran hopes to add Syria to its puppet collection that already includes Lebanon and may next incorporate Iraq. Iran has attempted to build bases in Syria and hopes to use that country, like Lebanon, as a stronghold from which to threaten Israel.
It is now crystal clear to anyone not indoctrinated by Arabist thinking that Israel cannot withdraw from the Golan Heights.
Unable to counter the strategic case against withdrawal, Indyk resorts to the legal-political argument that Israel cannot retain the Golan Heights because it would violate UN Resolution 242. But that resolution long ago lost its relevance, and is only trotted out when convenient to criticize Israel.
For argument’s sake, however, let’s remind Indyk and readers what Resolution 242 actually says.
The first point addressed by the resolution is the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” Some people read 242 as though it ends here, and the case for requiring a total Israeli withdrawal from the territories is proven. On the contrary, the reference clearly applies only to an offensive war. If not, the resolution would provide an incentive for aggression. If one country attacks another, and the defender repels the attack and acquires territory in the process, the former interpretation would require the defender to return the land it captured. Thus, aggressors would have little to lose because they would be insured against the main consequence of defeat.
Resolution 242 also calls for the “Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” Note that the authors deliberately rejected the Arabs’ call for the resolution to require Israel to evacuate “all” the territories, because they understood the absurdity of doing so explained in the previous paragraph, and because they recognized the borders would have to be modified from those that proved insecure in 1967.
Hence the resolution also called for the “termination of all claims or states of belligerency,” and the recognition that “every State in the area” has the “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.” Translated, this means that Israel has no obligation to return the Golan Heights (which are not explicitly mentioned) because of its right to secure borders and the refusal of Syria to terminate the state of war with Israel.
Indyk and other Arabists should be ignored, and the United States should recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.