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The Golan Heights Chimera

How Israel’s annexation* of the contested border region continues to keep the peace

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An unmanned UN watchtower stands May 7, 2013, on the Israeli side of the border between the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights and Syria. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
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The Heights

U.S. and Israeli policymakers are yet to acknowledge that their decades-long push to use the Golan to make peace with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a far-fetched dream

On Sunday, Israeli Air Force targeted sites around Damascus to stop the transfer of Iranian Fateh-110 missiles—capable of hitting all of Israel’s major population centers from all of Lebanon—to Hezbollah. But what if those missiles were in the hands of Syrian (or Iranian) troops sitting on top of the Golan Heights?

That’s precisely what would have happened if America’s foreign-policy wise men from James Baker to Martin Indyk had their way. As recently as 2010, Indyk, a Middle East adviser to the Clinton White House and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, was arguing that Israel should give away the Golan—in order to promote a wider peace in the Middle East. “Nothing could better help Obama to isolate Iran,” wrote Indyk, “than for Netanyahu to offer to cede the Golan, as four other Israeli prime ministers have, in exchange for peace with Syria, which serves as the conduit for Tehran’s troublemaking in the Arab-Israeli arena.”

But of course that’s precisely why the Iranians would never let Syrian President Bashar al-Assad make such a deal even if he wanted to. Syria is a vital Iranian interest—Iran’s 35th province, said one Iranian cleric—which is why Tehran has dispatched thousands of Iranian troops along with Hezbollah fighters to protect the Assad regime. Indyk’s peace proposal, seen in the light of the many tens of thousands of Syrians that Assad has killed, reads like lunacy. But to be fair, he had plenty of company. For 40 years, Washington’s Middle East hands believed that Syria was the key to peace in the Middle East. As Henry Kissinger put it, there’s no war without Egypt and no peace without Syria. And what Damascus wanted in exchange for signing a deal, U.S. policymakers (Democrat and Republican alike) believed, was the Golan Heights.

The backstory went like this: Hafez al-Assad, the father of Syria’s current and besieged president, was defense minister when Syria lost the Golan in the 1967 war. As President Assad in the 1973 war, he regained the Golan briefly when the hostilities broke out but then lost it again after some of that conflict’s fiercest fighting. Israel then annexed the Golan in 1981 in the face of international condemnation and outrage. Just like Sadat had to absolve his nation’s shame by “defeating” Israel and then receiving the Sinai as part of a negotiated peace, Assad also needed a prize; get the Israelis to return the Golan and he’d make peace just like Sadat. In the words of former Secretary of State James Baker, “A deal is there to be had.”

Baker pushed hardest on the Syria track at the 1991 peace conference he convened in Madrid in the hopes of forging a broader Middle East peace at the end of Cold War. While American presidents, from Ford through Clinton, had given Israel assurances that it would not have to return the Golan, Baker seems to have wanted a deal so much that this respected statesman wound up advocating the Syrian position. He scolded Israel for building a new settlement for Soviet immigrants (Israel’s post-Cold War peace dividend) on the Golan, calling it provocative and leading some Israelis to wonder if the United States even understood why giving back the Sinai had been possible. As Dore Gold, who would later become Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, explained at the time: “One of the reasons that the deal in Sinai was possible is that basically Israel traded away territory but acquired 120 miles of demilitarization in exchange.” To do the same with the Golan, said Gold, “You’d have to put the Syrian Army somewhere behind Damascus.”

Which seems simple enough. Nonetheless, even after Baker and Bush failed, Bill Clinton’s administration pushed for an Israeli-Syrian accord, premised on Israel returning the Golan—leaving Syria on top of the commanding heights from which they had regularly shelled Israeli farms and towns before the 1967 war. After Clinton’s efforts came to nothing, George W. Bush was excoriated for not engaging Damascus, with Baker describing Bush’s deliberate isolation of Syria as “ridiculous.” To Baker and his fellow wise men, Republican and Democrat, it mattered little that Bush’s decision was taken only after the Syrian regime had assassinated former Lebanese prime Rafik Hariri in Beirut, and while Assad was ushering large numbers of foreign jihadists into Iraq to kill U.S. troops. The Golan Heights, thought the wise men, was now clearly the key to a larger regional settlement that would isolate Iran. In 2006, Baker and Lee Hamilton’s Iraq Study Group argued that, “in the context of a full and secure peace agreement, the Israelis should return the Golan Heights, with a U.S. security guarantee for Israel that could include an international force on the border, including U.S. troops if requested by both parties.”

When President Barack Obama came into office promising to engage rogue regimes like the one in Damascus, the hearts of the wise men were gladdened once more. John Kerry, the man who was at the time Assad’s biggest cheerleader in Washington, told The New Yorker in 2009 of his consultations with the Syrian president: “He told me he’s willing to … have direct discussions with Israel over the Golan Heights—with Americans at the table. I will encourage the Administration to take him up on it.”

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Refael Hileman says:

It should also read:

success* of the Camp David Peace Accords

Binyamin the Prophet says:

The PRice of “Peace”: Ethnic Cleansing of the Golan Heights After the ’67 War

“But those who managed to sneak through and reach home often found
that nothing was left.” “I don’t remember exactly when it was, but a few
days after the end of the fighting, maybe less than a week, we received an
order to start destroying villages,” says Elad Peled, commander of the
IDF’s 36th Division in the war. For 10 days after the end of the fighting, his
division was responsible for the conquered part of the Golan Heights, at a time
when local villagers apparently attempted to return to their homes.

Tzvi Resky, in charge of what was called the Tel Hai bloc during the
fighting, and one of the people closest to GOC Northern Command David Elazar,
was in the command headquarters throughout the war. He remembers that,
“the houses were blown up immediately after the end of the fighting,
wherever possible.”

Yes, ethnic cleansing does yield “peace.” So does genocide.

Beatrix17 says:

I tried your link and got a blank page. You have a statement with quotes and no attribution. Despite your “Jewish” name, your statements read like Arab propaganda.

fred capio says:

Great article….

herbcaen says:

Precisely why Israel should keep the Golan for eternity

Binyamin the Prophet says:

Here’s the new link:

All you had to do was google the quote, and you would have gotten it. (The Ha’aretz links have changed since they went behind a paywall.)

Being a Zionist means any inconvenient truth can be denied as “Arab propaganda.”

Isn’t anyone old enough to remember when the Syrians occupied the Golan? Those bastards used to fire their machine guns at people swimming in Kinneret, and lob rockets into the kibbutzim below. where the children had to sleep in bomb shelters.

Let them kill and eat each other. They seem to be good at it.

Habbgun says:

Sure they remember. For a lot of those that do remembering Jews being killed from perches about is called nostalgia and they never give up trying to bring back what for them was the good old days.

ginzy1 says:

A telling phenomenon among the Druze residents of the Golan: A growing phenomenon of young Druze opting to obtain Israeli citizenship.

Background: After Israel effectively annexed the Golan in 1981 the Syrian citizens on the Golan were given permanent Israeli residency (which includes, Israeli ID cards, full social / medical benefits and the right vote in local elections), with the option (theirs) to request full Israeli citizenship. A minority have done so (factoid: among the Golan Druze Israeli citizens, the political party which garners a plurality (maybe a majority) of the votes is….. Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu).

For years most of the Druze have been demonstrative in their loyalty to the Assad dynasty. However of late a split has occurred. Some have continued with their Assad loyalty, fearing what would happen to the Syrian Druze if the Sunni Islamists take over. Others have split with Assad because of the atrocities and the recognition that the Druze better make peace with their historic enemies, the Sunnis (they also recognize that Assad could just as easily turn on them & slaughter them as well).

Like the Rabbi’s wife in the famous joke, a small but growing third group recognizes that on the one hand both of the other groups are correct, and on the other hand that Israel isn’t such a bad country to live in and be part of. They can get a good education, work and advance themselves and have a freedom of speech, social services, etc. that can’t even be dreamed of in Syria regardless of who is in charge. So increasingly this group has been exercising their option to obtain Israeli citizenship (much like an increasing number of eastern Jerusalem Arabs).

A friend of mine noted that over the centuries, the Druze have evolved an excellent sense of smell…. political / survival smell that is…


Jerusalem / Efrat

Nico says:

Congratulations to Israel for its pre-emptive strike on missiles in Syria. Israel lies in the middle of a bad neighbourhood, where it stands for personal freedom, individual responsibility, transparent government and the rule of law in a region which is racked with corruption, racism, violence and unremitting hostility towards the West. We must make common cause with Israel –because it is right, and because it is in the interests of freedom and democracy. See

Beatrix17 says:

As Haaratz says, the records won’t be open for 50 years and so we need to wait until 2017 to satisfy out quest for the truth. (Something you’ll never get from Arab propaganda). Apparently the civilians in the Golan had been shooting at Israelis—civilians and soldiers—and so the Israelis didn’t treat them as innocent bystanders. Syrian villagers and villages did remain and are still there. Of the people who left, Israel says they left voluntarily; Syria says they were expelled.

The Golan is definitely occupied, and in the course of war, I have no doubt injustices were done.

Israel says it willing to negotiate the Golan for peace with Syria, but if they give up the Golan, they give up an important source of their water supply. Both Jordan and Egypt have signed peace treaties with Israel. Syria could have as well, but never has, and maybe they never will. Syria gets the propaganda—Israel gets the water.

Binyamin the Prophet says:

Weak sauce, bubby. Every racist regime has a narrative about why they are not the bad guys. No, we don’t have to wait until 2017 to find out the truth.

Beatrix17 says:

Every honorable country feels they’re the good guys, too. And they’re right. Trying to demean me by age and sex is neither honorable nor right. In fact, It smacks of desperation.

Nico Bester says:

Conservatives world-wide MUST make common cause with Israel. It stands for personal freedom, individual responsibility, transparent government and the rule of law in a region which is racked with corruption, racism, violence and unremitting hostility towards the West. We must make common cause with Israel – both because it is right, and because it is in the interests of freedom and democracy. See


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The Golan Heights Chimera

How Israel’s annexation* of the contested border region continues to keep the peace