In July 2018, during a visit in Washington, the Coalition for the Israeli Golan handed to senators and congressmen a memorandum on the Golan Heights and the current situation in the Middle East.
The memorandum handed emphasizes the American interest in recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. It also emphasizes the conventional threat from Iran, as opposed to the non-conventional one, the nuclear, that draw most of the attention. The memorandum concludes by examining the current U.S foreign policy to the Middle East with respect to borders and suggest re-thinking on that matter.
Memorandum on the Golan Heights
Israel and the United States have a special relationship. Ever since Israel’s establishment, the two countries have shared common values and interests. They consistently see eye to eye on Middle East issues and have a tradition of dialogue and coordination on their positions. This coordination of positions has become critical, in light of the developments in the Middle East over the past seven years.
Events in 2011 were a watershed that brought about a great change in the Middle East, to the point that the region before and after that year should be viewed as belonging to different eras.
The most far-reaching of these changes is the collapsing framework of the Sykes-Picot accords which emerged following the division of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. This framework aimed to create in the region a system of states and boundaries modeled after Europe’s, and for about 90 years, great powers justified its preservation in the name of stability and attempted to prop up arbitrary borderlines across the Middle East. That effort is now yielding to the realization of the immense costs associated with the attempt to maintain a unified Arab state within arbitrarily drawn borders in several of these nations, as ethnic, sectarian, tribal and other communal divisions which define the identity of people in them assert themselves violently. The changes initiated in 2011 have broken the old mold, and are irreversible. And the complete collapse of authoritarian, centralized states welding together communities deeply suspicious of each other with millennium-old rivalries is now exposing the true human cost of forcing into existence and maintaining the fiction of some of those states.
The Middle East is now a deeply unstable region, threatening world peace. Not only are millions of people paying with their lives in the region, but the resulting international refugee crisis is eroding the political stability of many democracies, especially in Europe.
And yet, many countries in the world appear unable to come to terms with the significance of the changes in the Middle East and continue to believe that the only path to restored stability and peace lies in reconstituting broken, artificial states under a centralized government. This lack of imagination and the reflexive attempt to revert what has been tried and failed is exacting great costs on the region and the world.
Two main factors cause instability and upheaval throughout the Middle East:
A well-known factor: Some regional powers feed off the widespread instability and the world’s inability to understand its sources. The strategy of the Iranian Ayatollahs regime aiming at regional hegemony, threatens stability across the Middle East and particularly the interests of both Israel and the U.S. Iran exploits our efforts at restoring Syria to the status quo ante of 2011 to pursue its goals.
A lesser-known factor: The refusal to recognize the historic and irreversible changes unfolding in the Middle East, is driving some policymakers to self-defeating attempts at resurrecting the pre-2011 order. The greater the collapse is, the greater the effort necessary for great powers to restore the infeasible status quo ante is, and the greater the eventual human cost and instability. Our opinion is that this problem must be addressed seriously.
We regard what is happening in Syria, and in particular the future control of the Golan Heights as the Archimedean point, in relation to growth of regional instability fostered by the two abovementioned factors. In light of this assessment, the future of the Golan Heights becomes the most important concern impacting the common interests of Israel and the United States in the Middle East.
Israel’s control of the Golan Heights, contributes significantly to stability in large parts of the region (especially in Israel and Jordan), in contrast to the chaos which has engulfed Syria, Iraq and to a lesser extent Lebanon in the last 7 years. The vicious ethnic conflicts in Syria and Iraq have infused the region with so much hatred and hostility, that uncertainty and instability will remain a regional feature for decades to come.
As a result, the pre-2011 American perception of the Middle East should change and adjust itself to the new reality. Israel too, in 2018 cannot take risks that might have seemed acceptable in 2011.
The Iranian threat is now not only nuclear, but rather first and foremost conventional
While international attention was focused on restraining Iran’s non-conventional aggressive aspirations for development of nuclear weapons, the Iranian regime focused its resources and energies on increasing its conventional power and creating a continental corridor of evil and terror, that runs from Teheran to the Mediterranean (termed “the Shiite Crescent”). Syria is a crucial piece of the corridor designed to establish and enforce Iran’s hegemony over the Middle East.
Whereas until recently the prevailing paradigm regarded the restraining Iran’s nuclear capabilities as sufficient to safeguard the free world from Teheran’s intentions, the successful extension of Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria (as well as Lebanon and Yemen) during the last seven years, has proven that it is necessary to now devote full attention to restraining Iran’s non-nuclear activities and capabilities. The Iranian activities must be regarded as a pincer-movement combining conventional military capabilities with non-conventional ones.
The response to Iran’s intentions in both conventional and non-conventional military activities cannot be limited to America’s withdrawal from the JCPOA deal and the aiming for some new more binding agreement. Rather it must extend to the establishment of a strategic “line of defense” for Israeli and American interests in confronting Iran-inspired Shiite forces. Within this line of defense, the Golan Heights are the keystone, which must remain under Israeli control.
In practical terms, the frontline between Iran and its proxies on the one side, and the free world on the other side, is currently situated within Syria, on its border with Israel – the Golan Heights.
The events of the past few years only highlight the fact that has been evident for 50 years – that the only stable future for the Golan Heights is under Israeli rule. The alternative is the presence on the heights of forces controlled by Assad, Iran or ISIS, with Russian influence thrown in as an additional wildcard.
The Israel-U.S. interest in the Golan Heights
Traditionally and as part of the bipartisan consensus on U.S, foreign policy, Israel’s security interests complement American interests in the region. This principle was the background to the presidential letter issued by the administration of President Gerald Ford, and sent to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1975, expressing the great weight which the U.S. assigns to the position that Israel will remain on the Golan Heights even in the event of the future singing of a peace agreement with Syria. The letter was later ratified in 1996, under President Clinton’s administration by then Secretary of State, Warren Christopher.
The Golan Heights are vital for Israel’s capability not only to defend herself on her own in case of attack, but also to protect northern Jordan from the danger of an attack originating is Syria (as has already happened once, in 1970). Both Iran and its Syrian puppet regime will continue to threaten Israel, either directly or indirectly, from Syria and Lebanon. Israel’s control of the Golan Heights ensures Israel’s security and deters war. The Golan Heights are Israel’s strategic depth in the face of the most significant conventional military threat it is facing today. Without the Heights, Israel’s ability to prevail in a military confrontation on its northern border is put into question.
Moreover, with the growing presence in Syria of Russian forces at various strategic ports and airbases, as well as of bases housing Iranians and Iranian-sponsored militias, it is in America’s immediate interest to preserve and strengthen Israel’s long-range preparedness and capabilities in Syria – with respect to strategic deterrence, intelligence and other activities. The Golan Heights are a vital component of Israeli capabilities.
The recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, or even some steps in that direction, will promote America’s interests: sending a message to Russia and Iran that the U.S. has an interest in this region, without necessitating American “boots on the ground,” while also indirectly supporting the security and stability of another key American ally, the Kingdom of Jordan.
It is therefore crucial that the recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights will be pursued by the U.S. as well as will become a condition in any future accords with the Palestinians. It is plainly impossible for Israel to contend with a future risk-management formula that creates challenges from both Syria and the Palestinian Territories. The current U.S. administration must refrain from repeating the mistake of Secretary Kerry’s plan, back in 2013, which attempted to separate Israel’s security interests in Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley from its strategic and security interests in the Golan Heights.
Adapting U.S. foreign policy to the new Middle East that it reflects fundamental changes – discarding the old mantra of “sacrosanct” borders
We propose a rethinking of U.S foreign policy for the Middle East, that would discard the model of “sacred borders at all costs”. That old model was a fixture of 20th century American foreign policy in the Middle East, but came under increasing internal pressure in many countries, until it exploded, leading the region to the low point at which it is found today.
The key to long-term stability in the Middle East, is creating a new and more solid balance in the region, one that expresses a correlation between borders and the demography of the ethnic groups on the ground. The current conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and Yemen, are to a great extent the result of borders denying the ethnic realities on the ground.
A new long-term American foreign policy must be formulated for the Middle East, with its main goal being the discarding of any “sanctity” for old irrelevant borderlines. The Golan Heights are the best place to start implementing such a new policy.
- The Golan Heights are a small place making a big difference – representing just 0.6% of the area of pre-1967 Syria, the proposed border change recognizing the Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, will be negligible in volume while still very important in effect.
- There is no disenfranchised “occupied” population in the Golan Heights – The Golan is a sparsely populated territory, characterized by rural settlements and a total population of about 50,000 people, about half of whom are Israeli citizens and the rest are Druze fully eligible for Israeli citizenship. There are no human-rights issues or demands for self-determination, as well as no confrontations between the populations and no terrorist activities, with both groups living together in peace and cooperation – unlike the approximately two million Arabs residing in the territories of Judea and Samaria.
- The rationale for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, leads to the rationale for recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights – Israel has been ruling the Golan Heights for over 50 years, compared to only 21 years during which the area was ruled by Syria. During the period in which Syria controlled the Golan Heights, they served as a springboard for terrorist and military attacks, as well as two aggressive wars against Israel. Under Israeli rule, the Golan has become a quiet and prosperous area. This reality has created Israeli facts on the ground: thriving Israeli towns and villages, security and civilian infrastructure, the development of industry and tourism, as well as the integration of the Golan as a crucial component of Israel’s water system. This area is has also become an inseparable part of the State of Israel from a legal perspective: The Golan Law was enacted 36 years ago, to replace the military administration, and extend Israeli civil law to the Golan Heights. The option of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights must therefore be removed from the international agenda for any future Middle East border arrangements, similarly to what was achieved by the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
- Israel’s presence on the Golan Heights bolsters the security of American allies in the region – The recognition of Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights will not harm, but actually bolster the interests of core American allies in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan and Egypt – which are all currently under some level of threat from the Iranians and their proxies. Contrary to the sensitivity regarding issues touching on Jerusalem or Judea and Samaria, no substantive opposition is expected from the Sunni allies in the region in light of such a step.
- “Reward and punishment” in the Middle East – The U.S. will send a clear message that is both practical as well as moral to its cruel and violent enemies, such as the Syrian and Iranians regimes, that not only has the brutal war they have waged in Syria not netted them any long-term gains, it has eventually cost them a net loss of territory.
Recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights will cut the “Gordian Knot” that has been fettering U.S. policy in the Middle East for a long time – the unwillingness to consider altering Sykes-Picot borderlines. This will show friends and enemies alike, that in pursuing its interests, America is able to boldly turn the tables on those who put her at a disadvantage by exploiting existing conventions.