(December 23, 2016 / JNS) WASHINGTON—A number of major American Jewish organizations are indicating they will support the Israeli government if it decides to seek U.S. recognition of Israeli retention of the Golan Heights region.
Member of Knesset Michael Oren (Kulanu), a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. who currently serves as deputy minister for diplomacy in the Prime Minister’s Office, told Bloomberg News this week that he is urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek U.S. recognition of Israel’s control of the Golan after President-elect Donald Trump takes office next month.
“If it weren’t for Israel’s presence, the Syria war would be spilling over to Jordan,” Oren said. “So Israel’s presence in the Golan is indispensable for Mideast stability.”
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said in an interview with JNS.org that he visited the Golan earlier this year and was struck by the fact that “with a pair of binoculars, I could see the ISIS (Islamic State) flag flying on the Syrian side.” He said he was told by an Israeli intelligence officer that “there are at least eight different terrorist groups controlling areas along the Syrian side of the current Israel-Syrian border.”
“It’s no wonder Israelis across the political spectrum agree that Israel must retain control of this strip of land,” Cooper said.
Cooper said that the Wiesenthal Center’s support for U.S. recognition of Israel’s retention of the Golan is based not only on the strategic importance of the region, but also the “extensive archaeological evidence of ancient Jewish roots on the Golan,” and the fact that U.S. recognition “would help stabilize the situation of members of the Syrian Druze community on the Golan, whose status is in limbo because they are unsure who will control the area in the long run.”
Betty Ehrenberg, executive director for North America at the World Jewish Congress, told JNS.org that “we have always supported the position of the Israeli governments on this, as it is up to them to decide what is best for them concerning their security matters.” In view of “the instability and violence in Syria, including the actions of the Syrian government,” Ehrenberg said, “we believe that the Israeli citizens in the north, including Jews, Christians and Druze, would be greatly endangered if [the Golan were to be surrendered].”
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations last week said it is “incredible” that the United Nations recently adopted a resolution urging Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights. Conference of Presidents Chairman Stephen M. Greenberg and Executive Vice Chairman/CEO Malcolm Hoenlein asked, “How could 103 countries seriously consider this to be a worthwhile idea in the face of the barbarous mayhem, daily bombings and ongoing acts of terrorism in Syria…?”
Some Jewish groups are not yet taking a stand on Oren’s proposal. American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) spokesman Marshall Wittman told JNS.org that AIPAC “supports Israel’s right to self-defense and defensible borders,” although he did not comment specifically on Oren’s remarks. Dr. Mitchell Bard, executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and former editor of AIPAC’s newsletter, Near East Report, told JNS.org that “it would be unusual for AIPAC to comment on a proposal made by one deputy minister, especially when the prime minister has not yet articulated a position on whether or not to seek U.S. recognition.”
During Bard’s years at AIPAC, “we made the case that the Golan was strategically important to Israel’s security, while of course deferring to the Israeli government to make the decision on what it wanted to do in hypothetical negotiations with the Syrians,” he said. Bard therefore expects AIPAC will support whatever the Netanyahu government decides regarding the Oren proposal.
“One problem may be the timing,” Bard said. “The issue of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem [from Tel Aviv] seems like it will be a higher priority for the Trump administration, at least in its first months, than the Golan.”
Bard said that Israeli control of the Golan Heights is a consensus issue in Israel, with both the ruling Likud party and the opposition Zionist Union supporting Israel’s retention of the territory. He noted that the Golan is also a consensus issue among most American Jewish organizations. None of the dovish American Jewish groups contacted by JNS.org this week endorsed the idea of U.S. recognition of Israel’s presence in the Golan, but none of them advocated Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, either.
Paul Scham, co-president of Partners for Progressive Israel, told JNS.org that while in principle, he opposes Israeli claims to sovereignty over the Golan, “until there is a Syrian state that is both willing and able to make and enforce a peace with Israel, Israel has no option other than maintaining its control over it.”
“The Golan should only revert to Syria when there is a regional peace treaty and only 20 years after that treaty has gone into effect,” Rabbi Michael Lerner, a progressive activist and the editor of Tikkun magazine, told JNS.org. “Syria’s current regime is so drenched in blood that it would take a long time for me to feel comfortable with any deal that was reached with it.”
Lerner also reiterated his previously stated position that Israel should consider withdrawing from the Golan only if Syria were to “overhaul its entire educational system so that textbooks in Syrian schools no longer teach children to hate Jews and Israel.”