Golan Heights: From annexation to recognition
Op-ed: For the first time in nearly 50 years, there is an historic window of opportunity to change the formula of the future Golan arrangement from an Israeli withdrawal in exchange for an agreement with Syria to an international agreement for long-lasting Israeli control of the area as a core component of the region’s stabilization.
Since the law was enacted, the face of the Middle East has changed beyond recognition. The Syrian state has collapsed, and at the same time there appears to be a strategic change in the geopolitical perception of the United States in terms of the Middle East.
For the first time in nearly 50 years, an historic window of opportunity has been created to change the formula of the future arrangement in the Golan Heights from yesterday’s formula, which focused on an Israeli withdrawal in exchange for an agreement with Syria, to tomorrow’s formula, which should and can include an international agreement for long-lasting Israeli control of the Golan Heights as a core component of the region’s stabilization.
The evaporation of the agreements that defined the borders and the state in the Middle East after World War I presents a significant challenge to Israel, which requires it to rephrase its geostrategic interests (and not just in the Golan Heights) while looking far to the tomorrow, and not deep into what happened yesterday.
Israel, which has been in desperate need for recognition of the need to change borders for nearly half a century, finds itself at an optimal point in time and in a place for historic achievements. This depends on a leadership ability to rise to the occasion and to the navigate out of the comfort zone and in an uncertain environment, and try to influence what is happening in the region in order to create a new diplomatic-political formula for Israel.
No other horizon apart from the Israeli horizon
The Golan is the most mature place for an attempt to achieve “a change in the rules of the game” which we have known for the past 50 years. In the Golan Heights, there is no component of “controlling another people.” Syria, if it even continues to exist as one state, will never be the same. The human rights discourse is irrelevant for the Golan. In a reality in which 25,000 of its Druze residents are entitled to citizenship in the only democracy in the Middle East, the Syrian alternative has never seemed more delusional to them.
All this should lead to a change in the anachronistic international convention that the border between Syria and Israel should be along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The groundlessness of this convention is being proved on a daily basis in light of the incomprehensible bloodshed which has been taking place in Iraq and Syria, reaching the Golan Heights, for half a decade now.
A “coordination of expectations” process should be held with the international community, and first and foremost with the new American administration and with the US Congress, as to the alternatives of controlling the area between the edges of Quneitra and the Sea of Galilee, in an overall context of stabilizing the region: Neither the Islamic State’s Islamic Caliphate nor the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda or an Iran-Hezbollah-Assad foothold in the Sea of Galilee will allow the stabilization and recovery of the region. There is no other horizon in the Middle East apart from the Israeli horizon.
The election of Donald Trump as the US president, who enjoys a majority in both Houses of Congress, creates a concrete opportunity for another discussion on the Israeli “compensation” in light of the nuclear agreement with Iran. It will be a historical failure if Israel settles merely for tactical needs of advanced means of warfare as a response to the agreement.
The balancing formula vis-à-vis the Iranian achievement (and the Assad murderousness) should include, alongside a maximum restriction of the Iranian nuclearization danger, an curbing Iran’s conventional aggression potential and preventing the creation of a Tehran-Ein Gev land route, through a final international rejection of the Iranian-Assad ambition to retake control of the Golan Heights, which is less than 1 percent of the territory of what used to be Syria.
The apparent rare ability of the new American administration to hold a constructive discussion with Russia about the Middle East, as well as Bashar Assad’s special situation and his complete dependence on Russia, could serve the Israeli interest in the Golan Heights. We should advance a coordination of interests between the US, Russia and Israel regarding an arrangement for “the day after” the war in Syria and work in every way to include Israel’s needs in the discourse between the world powers on the future of Syria and the Assad regime.
The minimum required strategic guarantee is a presidential commitment and legislation in the American Congress, which will secure the Israeli control of the Golan Heights and end the discussion of the issue. This is not a groundless idea. In 1975, President Gerald Ford gave a written presidential commitment to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which included an American acknowledgement of the Israeli need to remain in the Golan Heights even at times of peace.
Only recently, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman suggested to revive the understandings reached between Israel and the American administration based on President George W. Bush’s letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Israeli construction in Judea and Samaria. There is no reason not to ratify President Ford’s letter on the Golan Heights as well and work to enforce its content in a fundamental change of the public and formal American policy on the Golan Heights, both of the administration and of the Congress.
The international aspect, however, is not everything. After five decades in which Israel failed to turn the Golan Heights into a thriving and populated region and failed to take fundamental steps to establish de fact control by creating an irreversible settlement reality, it must now place the Golan Heights at the top of the national list of priorities.
The Israeli government, particularly in its current coalition makeup, must not miss out on this opportunity. It must adopt a wide historical Ben-Gurion view and speed up the settlement of the Golan Heights through financial incentives, developing modern employment centers and relocating and developing national facilities and infrastructures, which will together establish facts on the ground and determine that the Golan Heights is in practice an inseparable part of the State of Israel.
Zvi Hauser is a former cabinet secretary.
The article was first published in a Menachem Begin Heritage Center magazine ahead of the 35th anniversary of the enactment of the Golan Heights Law.