Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Trump and Netanyahu Take the Golan Heights off the Table
Trump and Netanyahu Take the Golan Heights off the Table

Trump and Netanyahu Take the Golan Heights off the Table

The last leg of the Israeli election campaign is unfolding dramatically. The signing by President Donald Trump (25 March) of a proclamation recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over that part of the Golan Heights captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War was a shot in the arm for his friend and ally Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Some on the Israeli and American right see it also as an American signal to the Palestinians that the “rules have changed,” before the release of the Trump administration’s plan for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.[1]

Trump’s step, heralded last week by a tweet, does not come in a vacuum. Since his election in 2016, there have been steps by the Netanyahu government and by conservative pro-Israel organizations to encourage the decision. During Netanyahu’s first meeting with President Trump in February 2017, Netanyahu asked his host to recognize the annexation of the Golan Heights to the State of Israel. In February, Senators Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton and Representative Mike Gallagher introduced companion resolutions—with only Republican co-sponsors—urging the United States to officially recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Cruz and Cotton had introduced a similar resolution in the Senate in December. Anchoring the presidential proclamation in legislation is important for its supporters in order to make its possible reversal by a future president more difficult.  

In the view of those who promoted the decision, declaring Israeli sovereignty over the Golan is simply a recognition of reality, identical to Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. The non-occurrence of the widely predicted violent response in the Muslim world to the Jerusalem embassy move seems to have encouraged the latest decision as well. U.S. allies Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia,[2] and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as Turkey, all the European countries, Canada, and all 14 members of the UN Security Council joined the condemnation—continuing the pattern of the Trump administration making controversial moves that spark anger from a variety of states.

U.S. policy has until now held that the future of the Golan will be determined through negotiations. An example of this position is that the U.S. vigorously rejected Israel’s extension of its law and jurisdiction to the Golan in 1981. Supporters of the Israeli government position note, on the other hand, that the U.S. gave assurances to Israel in 1991 and 1996 that it stood by the letter given by President Gerald Ford to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1974, which stated in part that:

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 [author’s emphasis]. My view in this regard was stated in our conversation of September 13, 1974.

The Ford letter is therefore used to make the historical American position more equivocal.

The Golan in Israeli Politics and Society

These developments come as the Syrian Civil War winds down. It also comes after the extended (2011-2017) presence of jihadi elements on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights and Iran’s expanding presence in Syria. These factors have made, in the eyes of many Americans and Israelis, the idea of the Golan’s returning to Syria in the context of a peace treaty a non-starter.

A peace treaty with Syria was a real possibility, and a component of Israeli policy (including as an alternative to the Palestinian peace process) from 1991, with the beginning of the Madrid Peace Process and continuing for over 20 years.[3] In these talks, Israel displayed willingness to withdraw from most of the Golan Heights in return for adequate security guarantees. Disagreements on the extent of demilitarization on both sides of the new border; the demand of the Syrians for the demarcation of the border on the waterline of the Northeast corner of the Sea of Galilee (guaranteeing them rights to the watershed), which had over the years receded; and most importantly, mutual suspicion and distrust between the sides prevented the completion of an agreement.

While, in December 1981, the Knesset extended Israeli law and jurisdiction to the Golan (it had been under military government until then) with the “Golan Law,” there is an abstruse legal debate whether this comprised “annexation” since the word was never used in the Law.[4] The avoidance of the terms annexation and sovereignty were apparently not unintentional: Israel was trying to avoid blatantly violating international law.  This step was in any case universally condemned, with UN Security Council Resolution 497 declaring the Israeli decision null-and-void and demanding that Israel rescind it “forthwith.” And President Ronald Reagan suspended (in the event, for only six months) a strategic cooperation memorandum signed only a month earlier, and arrangements for provision of military services and equipment to American forces in the region.

The main result of this law was that unlike the West Bank, the Golan area, with all its inhabitants, is treated as a part of Israel proper and governed under regular Israeli law.[5] The Druze inhabitants of the Golan have, for the most part, rejected the opportunity to obtain Israeli citizenship (though they are defined as permanent residents), due to fear of Syrian reprisals. There has been a minor upsurge in requests for citizenship (under one hundred a year) since 2011. The legal status of the Golan was buttressed in Israel in 1999 and 2014 when legislation was passed requiring a majority in the Knesset, and the holding of a binding referendum (unless two thirds of the Knesset supported the government), on any transfer of territory to another country or entity. This has made territorial concessions in the context of future peace treaties even more difficult to contemplate.

In Israel, it has become commonplace among politicians, commentators, and the public to congratulate the country on “dodging a bullet” by not withdrawing from the Golan after an agreement with the Assad regime, in view of the chaos in Syria since 2011. However, withdrawal from the Golan has never been a popular proposition in Israel; most Israelis agree with the words of their current Prime Minister that the Golan will remain under Israeli sovereignty “forever” and that “Israel will never descend from the Golan.” It is a view shared by the government parties as well as by the majority of the opposition. Polling in Israel over the past decade has consistently shown that at least two thirds of the respondents opposed any withdrawal from the Golan Heights, even in the context of a peace treaty with Syria, and the severance of its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah.]For the sake of comparison, in the 2018 version of the poll, only 11% of Jewish respondents supported annexation of all the territories of the West Bank to Israel, with another 18% supporting annexation of settlement blocs. [

The arguments made for retaining the Golan revolve much more around security considerations (chiefly the need for Israel to retain the commanding Heights to prevent the resumption of attacks on its citizens), and the claimed legitimacy of annexing territory taken in a defensive war, and much less around ideological or religious claims. It is however interesting and important to note that attachment to the Golan is much more widespread among a much larger segment of Israeli society than that to the West Bank, despite the latter being of much more religious and historic centrality to the Jewish people. This is in large part because most of the Jewish communities on the sparsely-populated Golan are secular cooperative communities which both lean to the Center-Left and are seen, unlike the settlers in the West Bank, as “salt of the earth” (their decades-long public relations campaign to position themselves within the national consensus has met great success). In addition, the small and quietist Druze community does not raise the moral and strategic questions pertaining to control over a large, restive population, as does the West Bank. Most Israelis have been to the Golan and see traveling there and enjoying its differing climate, and natural beauty and vistas, as no different from traveling anywhere else the state of Israel: many of these same people have refrained for many years from traveling to the West Bank for safety concerns and for political reasons.

There is no pressure on Israel to negotiate regarding the Golan, and there is unlikely to be such pressure so long as Bashar al Assad remains in power. The domestic and international constituency for an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement, which would require territorial compromise, no longer exists. What is occurring is that Israel is using the conjunction of an exceptionally sympathetic American President, and the current irrelevance of the Golan issue and international abhorrence for the Assad regime, to remove the issue from the table in the future.

Overtaken by News

Netanyahu cut short his visit to the United States due to renewed escalation with Hamas, following damage to an Israeli home in the center of Israel from a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, which has led to another round of rocket attacks and Israeli airstrikes. The Prime Minister had already had his meeting with Trump, in which the Golan executive order was signed. The meeting and signing of the order should have been a major victory for Netanyahu.

This visit to the U.S. was meant to promote his strategy of stressing his national security and foreign policy chops and looking “prime ministerial” vis-à-vis his rivals: his campaign has stressed the theme “Netanyahu – in a different league,” including on giant billboards showing him with Trump. However, the Gaza crisis (as well as the submission of the Mueller report) largely pushed the Golan proclamation from the news cycle, causing Netanyahu to complain publicly and bitterly about media outlets’ shortchanging the “historic step” and warning that they would “be called to account.” Stress on Washington, Syria, and Iran plays to his strong points, while concentration on the recurrent violence and intractable problems of Gaza, which he has not been able to resolve and which have devilled the ten years of his current reign, does the opposite.

[1] On the domestic political side, the proclamation is a salvo in the campaign to encourage the “Jexodus,” the (questionable) shift of American Jewish voters from the Democratic to the Republican Party (the Administration has also in its recent messaging stressed anti-Israel elements among the Democrats) and “red meat” for fundamentalist Christian elements of the Republican base.

[2] The official Saudi news agency stated: “Saudi Arabia expresses its firm rejection and condemnation of the US administration’s declaration that it recognises Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights … This will have negative effects on the Middle East peace process and security and stability in the region.” This is especially noteworthy in view of the significance reportedly afforded to Saudi Arabia in the unreleased Trump peace plan.

[3] It included two meetings between the Israeli and Syrian chiefs-of-staff in December 1994 and June 1995; the Wye River talks in December 1995 – January 1996; Netanyahu’s own secret negotiations with the Syrian regime through the intermediation of billionaire Ron Lauder in 1998; a summit meeting by Prime Minister Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk a-Shara with President Clinton in Washington in December 1999,  followed by a round of talks in Shepherdstown, West Virginia in January 2000; the indirect negotiations by emissaries of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with the Syrians in Turkey in 2008; and secret, American-brokered discussions by Netanyahu with Syria in the fall of 2010.  

[4] The law itself is quite laconic:

  1. “The Law, jurisdiction and administration of the state shall apply to the Golan Heights, as described in the Appendix [a schematic map].
  2. This Law shall become valid on the day of its passage in the Knesset.
  3. The Minister of the Interior shall be charged with the implementation of this Law, and he is entitled, in consultation with the Minister of Justice, to enact regulations for its implementation and to formulate in regulations transitional provisions concerning the continued application of regulations, orders, administrative orders, rights and duties which were in force on the Golan Heights prior to the application of this Law”.

[5] The West Bank, the legal status of which is not finalized, is governed under military law (with civilian components), with formal authority vested in the general commanding the IDF’s Central Command, and no Israeli status for its Arab inhabitants.