Sometimes, the best deals are the ones you don’t make.
This week’s news that Hezbollah is seeking to establish a cell in the Golan Heights from bases in Syria without the knowledge of the Bashar Assad regime illustrates the foolishness of Israel ever leaving the strategic plateau. It’s also a reminder of the close escape Israel had in the 1990s, when it vainly sought to trade land for peace with the current Damascus dictator’s equally tyrannical father Hafez Assad. And it is the memory of such past follies that is motivating both the Israeli government and some of its American friends to push for recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan.
For the first time this effort has met with at least a modicum of success when the U.S. State Department changed its description of the Heights from “Israeli-occupied” to “Israeli-controlled” in its annual global human-rights report released on Wednesday. This also comes after a visit to the Golan by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during the course of which he vowed to lobby U.S. President Donald Trump to formally recognize that it belonged to Israel.
Given that Trump has already scrapped a decades-old policy of not recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the possibility that the United States will do just that can’t be discounted. Few are foolish enough to suggest that Israel hand it over to Assad while his country is still wracked by a civil war and foreign armies still operate there with impunity. But the international community and the American foreign-policy establishment have not given up their insistence that the Golan will always be Syrian territory.
Why then push for U.S. recognition now? Part of it stems from the fact that Trump is more attuned to Israel’s desires, as well as Middle East realities, than most of his predecessors. And as long as the idea that Syria will one day be able to return its army to the Golan, efforts to force an Israeli retreat will never cease.
Yet current developments would be unthinkable had not past Israeli governments failed in their efforts to get rid of the Golan for promises that would have been worthless once Syria descended into the horrors of a civil war that has cost the lives of half a million people and forced up to 5 million more out of their homes.
In 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister, he thought that Syria was Israel’s best option for peace, not the Palestinians. While Shimon Peres’s deputy Yossi Beilin was beginning the secret talks that led to Oslo without Rabin’s knowledge, the prime minister was concentrating on an effort to broker a land for peace deal with Hafez Assad. This led to a protest movement against Rabin’s efforts in which banners and bumper stickers proclaiming in Hebrew that “The people are with the Golan” were seen everywhere in Israel.
Historian Itamar Rabinovich, whose scholarly work was devoted to the debatable notion that Israel had passed up opportunities to make peace with previous Syrian dictators, was appointed ambassador to the United States, as well as chief negotiator with Damascus. But despite Rabin’s genuine desire for a deal, the indirect talks with the Syrians failed. Assad senior had no interest in further hostilities with the Jewish state and also wanted the Golan. But he never had any intention of making peace. The effort was eventually superseded by Beilin and Peres’s coup in getting the Palestine Liberation Organization to accept Israel’s offer that brought the terrorist Yasser Arafat into power in the West Bank and Gaza.
That wasn’t the last Israeli flirtation with Damascus.
During his first term in office later in the decade, Netanyahu also dabbled with the idea of a deal with the Assad clan even though a previous Likud government had formally annexed the Golan in 1981. He exchanged secret messages with Damascus via American philanthropist Ronald Lauder. While Netanyahu has denied that he offered a full withdrawal from the Golan, it’s clear that he was at the very least prepared to give up most of the Golan had Assad been willing to negotiate.
At the time, both of these initiatives seemed defensible since Assad’s regime was a stable, if brutal, government that had observed the terms of the agreement that ended the 1973 Yom Kippur War. No one then foresaw that Syria would collapse after the “Arab Spring” in 2011 and unravel into an orgy of bloodshed in which the country became a base for ISIS, as well as Iranian, Hezbollah and Russian forces. But had Rabin or Netanyahu succeeded, the Golan would have become one more battlefield in the Syrian civil war and placed northern Israel in even greater peril than it already is, given the always-present possibility of renewed fighting with Hezbollah and Iranian troops on both the Lebanese and Syrian borders.
As Israelis learned when they withdrew from Gaza in 2005—only to see the strip soon become a terrorist state ruled by Hamas—the unforgiving law of unintended consequences hangs over all proposed land-for-peace deals. Repeating that experiment in the West Bank would be as mad as a Golan withdrawal. Giving up strategic territory in a region where even stabile Arab regimes can fall to pieces under the weight of their contradictions is a reckless gamble that the Jewish state’s friends should never force upon it.
American recognition of Israel’s claims to the Golan won’t change the opinion of the rest of the world on the subject. But doing so would, as is true of Trump’s Jerusalem move, impress upon the Arabs and the international community that attempts to pressure Israel into dangerous concessions are a diplomatic dead end.
As it turned out, the Israeli people were right about holding onto the Golan. If Trump is looking for another opportunity to highlight the idiocy of the foreign-policy establishment’s obsessions, he can do no better than once again choose to recognize Middle East realpolitik, rather than to hold onto destructive fantasies on the Golan.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.