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April 10, 2019 9:28 am

Recognition of the Golan Is a Practical and Moral Imperative

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avatar by Martin Sherman


Signs pointing out distances to different cities is seen on Mount Bental, an observation post in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights that overlooks the Syrian side of the Quneitra crossing March 25, 2019. Photo: REUTERS/Ammar Awad.

In issuing his recent presidential decree recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Donald Trump followed the commendable policy pattern he has set of breaking the patterns of his predecessors.

Much like his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump’s decision was, on the face of it, little more than a recognition of long-standing realities. After all, the disputed Golan Heights have been under Israeli control for far longer than they have ever been under the control of Syria. Indeed, more than double the years.

But the decision was more than that. It was a moral and practical imperative.

Readers will recall that Israel took control of the Golan Heights, which tower above virtually the whole of the north of the country, in the 1967 Six-Day War, when a combined force of several Arab armies, including Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, attempted to obliterate the Jewish state. Until then, the Syrians had used their topographical superiority to regularly harass rural Israeli communities in the low-lying regions around the shores of the Sea of Galilee, frequently inflicting casualties among farmers and damage to agriculture and infrastructure.

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After bitter fighting, the 1967 Israeli victory put an end to the Syrian attacks. It also ended Damascus’ 21-year control of the Golan, which it had held since Syrian independence (1946).

Disturbingly, despite the critical strategic value of the Golan, successive Israel leaders, including Benjamin Netanyahu, fell prey to the allure of the perilous “land-for-peace” formula, and have been tempted to enter into negotiations over their return to Syria.

Fortunately, it was only obdurate Syrian rejectionism that prevented Israel from committing a strategic error of epic proportions. Indeed, just how grievous a mistake that would have been was revealed with the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

It was then that all illusions were dispelled as to the true nature of the Assad regime and its utter dependence on Iran. Until then, many thought of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Western-educated ophthalmologist, as a moderate reformer who could be a genuine partner in forging a viable peace with Israel in exchange for relinquishing the Golan Heights to him.

The civil war laid bare not only the unspeakable brutality of Assad and his regime, but also the no less vicious forces opposing him.

Thus, had Israel relinquished the Golan to Assad prior to 2011, it would have faced grim prospects, no matter who won. If, on the one hand, Assad and his Iranian masters prevailed (as they seem to have done), Israel would have had to contend with not only the specter of regular Syrian military forces being deployed in this critically sensitive area, but Iranian proxies (such as Hezbollah-like units) and even detachments of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps themselves.

Accordingly, the Trump decree not only reflected a sound commonsense acknowledgement of a half-century long reality, but also recognition that post-2011 events have made any notion of relinquishing the Golan to Assad — and therefore, to his Iranian patrons — unthinkable.

Despite this, the decision immediately provoked a shocked response in corners of the West, as well as outrage across the Arab and Muslim world. Dire warnings were made as to how detrimental and destabilizing it would be, and how it would spark renewed violence in the region — very reminiscent of similar warnings following Trump’s decisions to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, to move the US embassy to the city, and to pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

None of these past warnings proved true. And it is unlikely that any of the new ones will either. Among other things, this is due to one other highly-controversial and fiercely condemned component of Trump’s “maverick” conduct of foreign policy: the decision to reinstate sanctions against Tehran. More than anything, this has debilitated the capacity of the Iranian regime to propagate (and certainly to proliferate) its destabilizing mischief across the globe.

In light of growing domestic disaffection at the deteriorating economic conditions and increasing criticism of its military adventurism abroad, it seems unlikely that Tehran will be eager to devote dwindling resources to a retaliatory initiative that almost certainly will provoke a costly punitive response.

So, perhaps once again, Trump’s decisive initiative on the Golan is likely to validate the well-known dictum: “Fortune favors the bold.”

Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.

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