Immediately after the Six-Day War, then-minister Yigal Allon proposed annexing the Golan Heights. A year later, he officially recommended doing so in a letter to the prime minister, seeking to bring the matter to a government vote. Then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol refused to even discuss the matter.
Eshkol was a champion of settling the Golan Heights. One-third of the communities that have been established on the Golan in the 52 years since its liberation were founded in the first year-and-a-half between the war’s end and Eshkol’s death, and he was the main driving force behind them. He believed settlement was the correct path to true annexation, and worried that just discussing the issue of declaring Israeli sovereignty would turn the United States and the world against us and hurt the settlement effort. The people who went to live on the Golan also believed in this approach. They didn’t waste energy over questions about sovereignty; they believed in practical Zionism, in one acre at a time, one plowed furrow after another.
The Camp David Accords served as a wake-up call, when for the first time in Zionist history Israel’s leaders decided to uproot and give back part of the land: the Sinai Peninsula. The new reality hit them in the face. This crisis of ideology impelled the Golan Heights Law of 1981, which applies Israel’s government and laws to the territory. Residents of the Golan understood that practical Zionism was not enough, and that it needed to be complemented by diplomatic Zionism. Zionism, after all, from its inception, stood on these two pillars.
They launched a public campaign to apply Israeli sovereignty on the Golan; a national campaign culminating in hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens signing a petition calling for annexation. The two-and-a-half-year struggle bore fruit. On Dec. 14, 1981, then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin presented the Golan Heights Law to the Knesset for approval. From that moment on, the Golan Heights became an inseparable part of Israel, for all intents and purposes.
Despite all this, however, five Israeli prime ministers have since negotiated withdrawing from the Golan. The public campaign spearheaded by the communities and supported by the Israeli masses on one hand, and Syrian ruler leader Hafez Assad’s refusal on the other hand, helped us avert this national calamity. And while the Golan Heights Law wasn’t able to prevent negotiations, it did lead to Basic Law: Referendum, which requires popular approval for any withdrawal from Israeli territory.
The U.S. response to the Golan Heights Law was harsh. Then-President Ronald Reagan strongly condemned it and froze the Strategic Cooperation Agreement between the two countries, which Begin, in retaliation, completely annulled. The United States initiated a condemnation of Israel in the U.N. Security Council. No country in the world recognized Israeli law on the matter.
In all the years since, Israel has never asked the United States to recognize its sovereignty on the Golan because such a request never had a chance. The disintegration of Syria changed the picture.
In Israel, despite a tiny handful of rejectionists, consensus over the Golan has never been stronger; even the world has started to understand that an Israeli withdrawal would invite Iran or Islamic State to the shores of the Sea of Galilee. U.S. President Donald Trump, untethered by the dogmas of the Washington establishment, is open to innovative diplomatic initiatives. For the first time, a window of opportunity has opened for American recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights.
Uri Heitner is a publicist and educator; a senior researcher at the Shamir Institute for Research, a state-funded research and development center, and think tank located in the Golan Heights; and a member of Kibbutz Ortal.
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