(June 18, 2018 / JNS) Rep. Ron DeSantis’s proposal to the Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs that the United States recognize Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights has been shelved for the foreseeable future. DeSantis’s (R-Fla.) hope was that, following the Trump administration’s success in fulfilling its promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, the next move would be to recognize realities on the ground in the Golan Heights.
At the same time, several senior Israeli lawmakers, including Transportation and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz, Likud party MK Yoav Kisch and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid have all made recent public calls for the U.S. to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. However, an Israeli report said that U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman allegedly criticized Israeli lawmakers for their calls to acknowledge sovereignty over the Golan Heights, saying that it was a display of “ingratitude” in the wake of the decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem.
Yet with the Syrian civil war continuing as well as the growing threat from Iran and its terror proxy Hezbollah, the strategic importance of the Golan Heights for Israel as a buffer to the raging violence and threats next door has only increased in recent years.
Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS that “this is a logical move. Israel has controlled this real estate since 1967, and successive leaders held out hope that it could be returned to Syria in exchange for peace. But now it’s hard to argue that Syria is still a state. Moreover, the Israelis have no real partner on the other side to talk to, given that [Syrian President Bashar] Assad barely controls the territory that is said to be in the hands of his regime.”
Yehuda Ben Meir, head of the National Security and Public Opinion Project at the Institute for National Security Studies, agrees. “Assad has shown himself to be among the worst dictators in the 21st century,” he told JNS. “Not only did he kill over half-a-million of his own people and displace millions more, I don’t think there are many people who could conceive that the Golan could be placed in the hands of a man like Assad. Syria is going to be unstable for a long time.”
Ben Meir pointed out that the security ramifications on the ground necessitate Israel’s presence on the Golan Heights, and this was even suggested in a Memorandum of Agreement in 1975 between U.S. President Gerald Ford and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin based on their conversation from September 1974. It reads: “The U.S. will support the position that an overall settlement with Syria in the framework of a peace agreement must assure Israel’s security from attack from the Golan Heights. … The U.S. has not developed a final position on the borders. Should it do so, it will give great weight to Israel’s position that any peace agreement with Syria must be predicated on Israel remaining on the Golan Heights.”
Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981 and has been in control there for 51 years—much longer than Syrian sovereignty. The Golan Heights served as a point from which Syrians rained barrages of artillery fire on the communities below until Israel succeeded in taking possession of the strategic high ground in the defensive Six-Day War in 1967. Today, even though the international community has not recognized Israel’s rights there, most Israelis see the Golan Heights as an indefinite part of Israel.
“Israelis are more confident that there will be recognition or acceptance of the fact of an Israeli presence in the Golan,” added Ben Meir. “For this reason, [Deputy Minister] Michael Oren is working on this effort.”
‘If you build it, they will come’
Oren, of the centrist Kulanu Party, told JNS that his party is working to promote the Golan Heights as a great place to live, work and tour.
“If you build it, they will come,” he said. “It starts with getting various ministries to cooperate. Israel can do it if it makes that decision. We’ve had the Golan for 51 years, and we haven’t done anything with it. [About] 22,000 citizens live there—mostly Jews, some Druze. But this is nothing. It’s smaller than a Tel Aviv neighborhood.”
Oren emphasized that the Golan is “historically part of Israel, and is strategically important to Israel. It is within the national consensus. It’s not a right or left issue. I believe the U.S. will support our development of the Golan Heights.”
Oren said he isn’t seeking U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, but he emphasized that “Where we don’t build, we don’t keep.”
One of the main ideas, besides building infrastructure such as roads and bringing in more industry, is to build a large safari with hotels, which could attract tens of thousands of Israelis and tourists each year.
The program, named “Neto Golan” aims to have 100,000 residents in the Golan within 10 years.
At this point, it appears that the Trump administration is not prepared to officially recognize Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights. However, Schanzer still holds out hope. “I don’t see a real downside for Trump, unless this undermines his credibility with the Gulf Arab states. But this does not seem like a difficult thing for them, particularly in light of the warming ties between Israel and these countries.”