OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

When it comes to the Golan, Israel needs less talk and more action

What remains to be seen is whether a national plan to double the region’s population in five years will move forward or remain just that.

Israeli Cabinet members pose for a picture in Kibbutz Mevo Hama in the southern Golan Heights, Dec. 26, 2021. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO.
Israeli Cabinet members pose for a picture in Kibbutz Mevo Hama in the southern Golan Heights, Dec. 26, 2021. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO.
Eyal Zisser
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.

This month marked 40 years since the application of Israeli law to the Golan Heights. Then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin was the one who introduced the Golan Heights Law, which passed all three Knesset readings in a single day, with overwhelming support from coalition members, in a surprise move in Dec. 1981.

The Golan Heights Law was aimed at dispersing, if ever so slightly, the fog of uncertainty as to the future of the plateau. With Israel having recently signed a peace agreement with Egypt that saw it return the entire Sinai Peninsula to Cairo, many Druze residents of the Golan had come to the conclusion that Jerusalem could cede the territory in the same way that it did with the Sinai.

While fully integrated into the fabric of Israeli society, they nevertheless continue to outwardly demonstrate loyalty to Syrian President Bashar Assad out of concern that Israel could one day change its mind and send them back to Syria.

Despite the good intentions, very little has changed in the Golan Heights in the four decades since the legislation was passed. Barely any new communities have been established in the area, and the number of Israeli residents has grown ever so slightly. In the Golan, some 50,000 people, 60 percent of them Druze, reside.

In the 1990s and 2000s, a majority of governments in Israel even expressed a willingness to cede the Golan in return for a peace deal with Damascus. All that remained for them to do was to bargain with the Syrians over whether they would be able to once again dip their feet in the waters of the Sea of Galilee or accept a border a few dozen meters from its shores.

It may be that the willingness of so many governments to discuss the future of the Golan Heights with the Syrians deterred them from investing in, developing and promoting the settlement of the region.

The last decade has supposedly resulted in a plot twist. The lingering Syrian civil war across Israel’s border has collapsed the Syrian state, not only removing Assad, who many in Israel saw as a potential peace partner, from sight, but transforming his side of the Golan Heights into a sort of no man’s land in which Iran’s emissaries, Hezbollah terrorists and even Islamic State fighters operate.

Furthermore, in March 2019, then-U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Golan, in a move that seemingly prevented Israel from ceding the territory in the future. Under these circumstances, the last of the supporters of the “Syrian option” in Israel were convinced that we had arrived in the plateau in 1967 to stay.

It now appears that it is too early to rest on our laurels. In Syria, the civil war has come to a close. The Arab world is already rushing to welcome Assad back, as are some European leaders. Even Washington has signaled a willingness to do business with Damascus.

All this follows the U-turn that U.S. President Joe Biden has taken on his predecessor’s policies, whether that be on the Iranian nuclear question, the U.S. consulate in eastern Jerusalem or the Golan Heights. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s spokesman indicated as much when he said that Washington believes Israel’s presence there is vital as long as the country is at war and the Syrian regime lacks international legitimacy.

In the future, though, when the Syrian state is back on its feet, there will be a need to renew talks with Damascus, which ceased when the Syrian war broke out, on the future of the Golan and the possibility of returning it to Syria in return for the signing of a peace deal with Israel.

In the meantime, Israeli governments continue to declare their commitment to the Golan and determination to keep the territory. The current government has followed in the footsteps of its predecessor and convened a special meeting in the Golan Heights Sunday in which a national plan was presented and authorized for the construction of some 7,000 housing units and the doubling of the region’s population in five years.

All that remains is to see whether the plan moves forward or, as so many of its predecessors, remains just that. Given the new reality taking shape in Syria and the American U-turn, what we need now is action, not words.

Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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