The American policy
The US gave official expression to the importance of the Israeli presence on the Golan Heights after the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, when Israel seized territories inside Syria east of the ceasefire line set after the Six-Day War, called the “purple line.”
In May 1974, the Agreement of Disengagement between Israeli and Syrian Forces was signed, under which Israel pulled back to the “purple line” and a buffer zone was established between the two countries along the eastern side of the line, on the Syrian side. Article A of the Agreement states: “Israel and Syria will scrupulously observe the cease-fire on land, sea and air and will refrain from all military actions against each other.”
A few months later, in 1975, Prime Minister Rabin received a letter from President Gerald Ford, informing the Prime Minister that the United States recognizes the security importance of the Golan Heights to Israel. President Ford’s letter stated:
“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. further supports the position that a just and lasting peace, which remains our objective, must be acceptable to both sides. 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.”
Over the years, “Ford’s letter” was forgotten and in the early 1990s negotiations began between Israel and Syria, with American mediation, during which Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin expressed his consent to withdraw from the Golan Heights within the framework of a peace agreement with Syria. Rabin’s consent with respect to the Golan Heights later called: “Rabin’s deposit.”
In the summer of 1996, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked his political advisor, Dore Gold, to examine the status of Rabin’s deposit. After internal consultations and a conversation with Secretary of State Christopher, it was clarified to the Israeli side that the U.S. government did not consider Prime Minister Rabin’s promise as having any official status, but rather, viewed it as an oral statement that referred to a hypothetical scenario, and consequently, is not binding.
Netanyahu asked to receive a written clarification from the U.S. government that Rabin’s promise with regard to the Golan is not binding upon the State of Israel; Netanyahu also asked for written ratification of the commitment made in “Ford’s Letter” to Prime Minister Rabin in 1975. A few weeks later, the Americans forwarded a document containing assurances that the commitments made in “Ford’s Letter” would be honored, which was signed by Secretary of State Christopher. An additional document accompanied this document: the Americans issued written confirmation that “Rabin’s deposit” – his promise regarding the Golan Heights – was not in any way binding.
The Trump administration
Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States creates an opportunity to reopen the question of recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. During Netanyahu’s first meeting with President Trump at the White House in February 2017, Netanyahu asked Trump that the United States recognize the annexation of the Golan Heights to the State of Israel. Netanyahu noted that “the US president did not respond with amazement to this request.”
In the broader sense, Israel faces a twofold challenge that requires it to redefine its strategy in order to achieve sovereignty over the Golan Heights, as well as convincing the Trump administration that there is a Gordian knot between Israeli sovereignty over the Golan and the restrainment of Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East. President Trump is well aware of the danger posed to the region by Iran. He has justifiably retreated from the nuclear agreement with Iran, and it is clear that he is keenly aware of the need to balance the equation that has been created because of it.
The cancellation of the the shameful nuclear agreement with Iran and the American recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel while relocating the embassy, are signs of a completely different perception of the American administration’s challenges in the region. There is a need to discuss the big elephant that is still in the room: The real strategic response to Iran’s consolidation in Syria is the fear of American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights A supreme effort must be made to bring such recognition during President Trump’s shift, both as a presidential decision and as a symbolic act of Congress.
In addition, the Trump administration’s potential to conduct a constructive discussion with Russia regarding the Middle East, as well as Assad’s total dependence on Russia, can serve Israeli interests in the Golan Heights. Israel should strive to coordinate its interests with the United States and Russia in order for these to be reflected in the “day after” arrangement that will be made at the end of the Syrian Civil War. Additionally, Israel should use all means in its disposal to accentuate its needs in the inter-regional dialogue regarding the future of Syria and the Assad regime.
American recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights will constitute a historic opportunity for a renewed process of coordinating expectations with the international community, led by the US administration and Congress. This process can be beneficial not only concerning alternatives of control in the area between the outskirts of Quneitra and the Sea of Galilee, but also in a more comprehensive context of regional stabilization.
Israel is at an optimal point in terms of time and place for the achievement of historic accomplishments. These include the abolition of the “sanctity” of the 1967 borders, as well as internalizing the necessity of changing and redrawing regional borders in accordance with current events. Israel’s success depends on the leadership’s ability to recognize the importance of current times, to navigate out of the comfort zone and in unknown waters, and to influence what is happening in the region in order to create a new political-security equation.
The requisite strategic collateral is an “American pledge,” including with regard to the Golan, with a presidential guarantee and Congressional legislation to ensure Israeli rule there. the achievement that Israel needs and can attain is to update the international stance, and ratify and upgrade the U.S. stance on the Golan.