(April 22, 2016 / JNS) With Syria’s civil war raging on in its sixth year, neighboring Israel has largely managed to keep a comfortable distance from the bloody conflict, in no small part thanks to the Jewish state’s strong presence in the strategic Golan Heights—a territory that has belonged to Israel for nearly 50 years, but is considered disputed territory by the international community. After acquiring and defending the Golan in wartime, Israel now faces a diplomatic battle over its control there.
Recently, a circulated draft of talking points in United Nations-sponsored Syrian civil war peace negotiations featured a call on Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria. This revelation drew a quick response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who phoned U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to inform him that Israel supports the Syrian peace talks only “on the condition that it does not come at the cost of Israeli security,” the Washington Post reported.
On April 17, the Israeli government’s ministerial cabinet chose to hold its weekly meeting in the Golan Heights in order to affirm the Jewish state’s sovereignty in the area.
“It is time that the international community recognized reality,” Netanyahu said. “Whatever happens on the other side of the border, the border itself will not move. Secondly, after 50 years, it is time that the international community realized that the Golan will remain under Israeli sovereignty.”
Middle East expert Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) think tank, said the peace talks’ concept of Israeli control over the Golan Heights being a “central tenet” in the Syrian civil war is “preposterous.” At the same time, he said, it “seems obvious that this is something that all sides in Syria could agree on as a starting point.”
“If anything, Israel’s control over the Golan Heights has removed one territory that can be taken over by Nusra Front or the Islamic State,” Schanzer told JNS.org, referencing two terror groups that are involved in the Syrian conflict.
Netanyahu’s affirmation of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights proved to be a rare moment of unity for Arab leaders on both sides of the civil war.
“All options are on the table for getting back the occupied territory from Israel,” Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told the Lebanon-based Al Mayadeen television network, adding, “We are prepared to do anything in order to return the Golan to the Syrian motherland, including using military force.”
The chief coordinator for Syria’s opposition, Riad Hijab, said, “We won’t give up on our territorial completeness or on the unification of our social fabric. We won’t concede a single grain of soil. The Golan is Syrian land and it will be returned to Syria.”
The issue of Israel, Schanzer told JNS.org, “continues to be something that even warring factions can agree on.”
“The perpetual hatred of Israel and blaming Israel for the region’s problems is the lowest common denominator,” he said.
After Israel’s Golan Heights cabinet meeting, the United States and the European Union (EU) also maintained their long-held opposition to Israeli control in the area.
“Every administration on both sides of the aisle since 1967 has maintained that those territories are not part of Israel,” U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said the 28-nation bloc “recognizes Israel within its pre-1967 boundaries, regardless of the [Israeli] government’s claims on other areas, until a final settlement is reached. This is a shared position reaffirmed by the European Union and its member states.”
Schanzer said the Obama administration is “not reflecting reality” on the Golan Heights issue, comparing the administration’s position to its stance on pushing for a two-state solution despite the fact that the Palestinians are internally divided between Hamas rule in Gaza and Palestinian Authority control in the West Bank.
“It is very difficult to understand the place the Golan Heights has in any of this (the U.S. helping to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict). It doesn’t have a role to play with the Palestinians. It doesn’t have a role to play with the [Bashar] Assad regime [in Syria], because there is no peace process that is going to take part with Assad in the near future,” Schanzer said, adding that the Obama administration is framing the Golan Heights “as a matter of principle, not as a situation that is changing over time.”
While not originally part of the borders of the British Mandate of Palestine that preceded the State of Israel’s founding, the Golan Heights has played a significant role throughout Jewish history. The Bible first describes the region as belonging to two Israelite tribes during the time of Joshua, then mentions King Solomon’s appointment of two ministers in the region. Later, the Jewish communities in the Golan were said to have joined in the Maccabean Revolt during the 2nd Century BCE as well as during the Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire in the 1st Century CE.
After years of Syrian-sponsored terror attacks and threats to Israel’s north, Israel gained control of the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War. After Israel briefly lost the territory during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel and Syria established a United Nations-monitored cease-fire line in the region, with Israel taking control of the western two-thirds of the area. In 1981, Israel essentially annexed the Golan when it extended Israeli civil law to the territory. Now, the Golan is a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts and tourists, and is famous for its wine production, hiking, and skiing.
The Golan Heights also has several key demographic differences with other territories that Israel gained in the Six-Day War. Unlike eastern Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip (where Israel ultimately withdrew unilaterally), which are heavily populated by Palestinians, the mountainous Golan is more sparsely populated. Most of the region’s inhabitants are the Druze, who have traditionally held warmer ties with Israel than Palestinian Arabs—especially members of the Druze community living within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, who regularly serve in the Israel Defense Forces and participate in Israeli society.
Despite the strategic importance of the Golan Heights, past Israeli governments had been willing to negotiate over the territory during peace talks with Syria. In 1994 and 1995, Israel and Syria held ambassadorial-level discussions that eventually stalled. Negotiations resumed in 1999 under U.S. president Bill Clinton between Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Syrian foreign minister Farouk al-Sharaa, and another round of peace talks took place in January 2000.
In 2007, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert stated that Israel was interested in peace with Syria, despite Syria’s support for terror groups like Hezbollah and connections to Iran, and then in 2008, Israel and Syria held indirect negotiations under the auspices of Turkey. Like all of the other negotiations, the 2008 talks led nowhere.
With the advent of the Syrian civil war, Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights has provided the Jewish state with protection from the various terror groups that now are active across the border in Syria, including Islamic State, the Nusra Front, Iranian forces, and Hezbollah.
“There is zero chance that Israel cedes this territory,” FDD’s Schanzer said. “The Israelis understand the volatility in Syria and they understand the environment….The Syrian civil war, for them (the Israelis), has reinforced the idea that they should keep the Golan. It is an opportunity to assert a legitimate claim on this territory. The idea of handing this territory over to any of the actors in the Syrian conflict is really hard to imagine.”
Based on such concerns, Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 21 at the Kremlin, where he reportedly told the Russian leader that Israel “cannot return to the days and times when our villages were shot at from the Golan Heights.”
“Therefore, whether within the framework of an agreement [in Syria] or without one, the Golan Heights will remain part of [Israeli] sovereign territory,” Netanyahu added, the Jerusalem Post reported.
Netanyahu last visited Moscow in September 2015, when Israel and Russia agreed to establish a mechanism for coordination between their militaries in the region, in order to avoid inadvertent Israeli-Russian clashes near the Israel-Syria border.
With well over 300,000 people killed, several million displaced, and large swathes of the country under the control of terror groups, many observers are unable to imagine how Syria can be put back together again.
“Syria as a country doesn’t really exist,” Schanzer told JNS.org. “You have a redrawing of the map that is undeniable at this point. That is something the Israelis are pointing to as well, to bolster their claims in the Golan.”