Recently, Israel’s control of the Golan Heights turned 50. In that period of time, the Golan has become a model of prosperity and coexistence. Yet Iran’s victorious foray into Syria has changed the reality in the region. Iran is now making every effort to build local terror proxies that will destabilize Syria’s borders with Israel. Changing the strategic and security equation in the Golan places Israel and the United States in a situation where they are required to react to the change by positing a new equation: Recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the portion of the Golan Heights that Israel recognized as its sovereign territory since 1981.
Iran’s presence in Syria is a done deal. Whether at the hands of Iranian soldiers or proxies, the security equation we had known these last few decades on the border between the Israeli and the Syrian sections of the Golan has changed: The border between Israel and Iran, between the West and radical Islam, now passes through the Golan Heights. Iranian militias, looking a lot like Hezbollah, are digging into bases on the border with the Golan, the Shia population in the area grows larger, and rocket supplies threaten the Israeli residents of the Golan Heights and the eastern Galilee.
The Iranian leadership clearly realizes that the way to challenge Israel’s security isn’t necessarily by classic military warfare but by asymmetric conflict, deploying terrorist organizations and militias that spark skirmishes along the border and attack the civilian population.
Unlike the communities of the Galilee or those on the border with Gaza, which are internationally recognized as parts of Israel proper, the Golan Heights is still labeled by the international community as “occupied territory.” Given a potential future conflagration on the Golan’s border, Israel will be hard-pressed to gather the international recognition it needs to defend itself there, especially if it is forced to launch a military response deep into Syrian territory as it has been forced to do in both Gaza and Lebanon.
Iranian attempts to undermine Israel’s sovereignty will destabilize the security situation in the Golan, and sooner or later lead the international community to propose an Iranian withdrawal from Syria in return for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. But an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan will be a disaster for Israeli security and for Jordanian security as well, and reward the mass murderer Assad with the biggest prize he could’ve imagined, the ability to threaten Israel with guns and missiles from atop the Golan’s mountains, as Syria routinely did before 1967. Such a reality could very well send the whole region spiraling into war.
American recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan will send a clear message to Iran, stating that Israeli sovereignty is unquestionable and that the attempts to challenge it are redundant. It will also send a clear message to the Russians, informing them that they must curb Iran; it will protect the stability of Jordan; and it will reduce the risk of a future military confrontation between Iran and Israel, a confrontation Israel might initiate to protect itself against Iranian aggression. This kind of confrontation might also drag other nations into battle, including, possibly, the United States.
* * *
The Golan Heights is a 1,860 square-kilometer territory that borders Mount Hermon in the north, the Yarmouk River in the south, the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee in the west, the Roked River in the east, and the Horan area in the southeast. It is mentioned in the Bible, under the name the land of Bashan. It is chock-full of both ancient and current Jewish farms, homes, and places of worship.
Jewish history in the Golan began as soon as the Israelites entered the land of Canaan. As the book of Joshua tells us: “So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. East of the Jordan (on the other side from Jericho) they designated Bezerin the wilderness on the plateau in the tribe of Reuben, Ramoth in Gilead in the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan in the tribe of Manasseh.”
Jewish settlement in the Golan grew and thrived in the end of the sixth and the beginning of the fifth centuries BCE with the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon. In 67 CE, three years before the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple, the Golan witnessed the battle of Gamla, which was part of the Jewish rebellion against Rome and became part of the ethos sanctifying sacrifice in service of defending the land. During the battle, which was similar to the one that occurred in Masada, 9,000 Jewish warriors lost their lives. Archeological digs in the Golan have thus far revealed the remains of 25 synagogues that operated between the Jewish rebellion in the first century CE and the Muslim conquest in the mid-seventh century CE, as well as evidence of numerous Jewish villages and communities.
With its establishment in the 19th century, the Zionist movement following the vision of Herzl, who saw the Golan as an inseparable part of the renewed Jewish sovereign territory in the land of Israel. In 1946, the French mandate in Syria officially ended, leading to the establishment of an independent Syrian state, which included the entire territory of the Golan, including the parts that were historically part of the Jewish settlement in the land of Israel.
During Israel’s War of Independence, Syria played an active role in the overall Arab attack on Israel, conquering additional areas in the borderline east of the Kinneret. The armistice lines after the war did not match the internationally recognized borders, and Syria continued to use the territory it had conquered in the Golan to bombard Israeli communities.
Syria controlled the Golan for 21 years—as opposed to 52 years of Israeli control. In those 21 years, it encouraged terrorist organizations to use the entire Golan as a base of operations for terrorist attacks against Israel; ceaselessly bombarded communities around the Kinneret and close to the border; used the Golan as a strategic base from which to continuously threaten Israel as well as strategic sites like the Port of Haifa; and deliberately attempted to divert the Golan’s water sources, hoping to deny Israel vital waters it needed for drinking and agriculture.
Toward the end of 1966, the situation became intolerable. Border skirmishes, Syrian armament under the blessing of the Soviets, and ongoing attempts to divert water sources arriving to Israel from the Hermon all forced Israel to arrive at a decision. In 1967, during the fifth day of the Six-Day War, Israel launched a preemptive strike to remove the ongoing threat posed by the Syrians in the Golan, taking over the territory.
In October of 1973, in the midst of Yom Kippur, Syria and Egypt launched a surprise attack on Israel, and Israel fought back and held on to the Golan. In May of 1974, a disengagement agreement was signed between Israel and Syria, leading Israel to withdraw from some of the territories it had conquered during the Yom Kippur War. Several months later, in 1975, then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin received a letter from the American president, Gerald Ford, containing an American recognition of the Golan’s strategic importance for Israel: “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.”
On Dec. 14, 1981, after 14 years of Israeli military rule in the Golan, the Knesset approved the Golan Heights Law, annexing the Golan to Israel and subjecting it to Israeli law.
When Israel took the Golan from Syria in 1967, a community of a few thousand Syrian Druze were left behind. Today, this community numbers 27,000 people centered around four towns in the north of the Golan Heights: Mas’ada, Majdal Shams, Bukata, and Ein Kania. With the introduction of Israeli law to the Golan, the Druze were invited to become Israeli citizens, receiving Israeli ID cards and full rights. They accepted this offer with mixed feelings, torn between the desire to be loyal Israeli citizens and enjoy the full protections of the law and their fear of the Syrian regime, which, should Israel withdraw from the Golan, might retaliate against the Druze for their alleged disloyalty to Damascus.
The reality of life for the Druze in the Golan, and the fact that they are entitled to an Israeli citizenship and full civil rights, sets the discussion about the Golan apart from the one that’s been raging for the last half century about Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria. All Druze living in the Israeli Golan today, whether they claimed their citizenship or not, effectively enjoy the same exact rights as all other Israeli citizens and a life of coexistence and robust trade with their Jewish neighbors. Israel’s presence in the Golan Heights does not involve “controlling another people,” and the civil rights discourse that occupies such a central place in every conversation about Judea and Samaria is irrelevant here. It’s hard to imagine the chasm between the 27,000 Druze living in Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, and the lives of Syrian Druze living just a few kilometers across the border.
* * *
The principle of self-defense, under which Israel justifies its presence in the Golan Heights, applies not only to the past but to the future as well. If you look at the scope of the damage, the number of people wounded or killed in Syria in recent years suggests that the region is currently suffering a catastrophe that is the equivalent to the damage caused by nuclear weapons. Hundreds of thousands of casualties, millions of refugees, large swaths of entire cities wiped off the face of the earth, and outbursts of hatred that would only be quelled decades hence.
According to estimates, more than half a million people were killed during the recent civil wars in Syria. More than 10 million Syrians, or about half the population, lost their homes; 8 million of them became refugees and forced to flee their country. Seventy-five percent of Syria’s economy and infrastructure was destroyed.
The ethnic conflict raging in Syria in the past seven years has charged the entire region with enough hate and hostility to ensure that it remain unstable for at least another half a century. The thought that it might be possible to heal the massive religious and tribal rifts we’re seeing in the Middle East with a quick process of reconciliation is wishful thinking of the most fantastical kind.
The future of the region in coming decades seems destined to suffer recurring geopolitical earthquakes that could reshape it slowly but surely. This will be a long process influenced, among other things, by battles for control over territory and by cultural, ethnic, and religious struggles, a process one could not bring to an end applying artificial measures. Israel and the United States must remove any possibility of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights from both their domestic and the international agendas.
Yet while Russia, Turkey, and Iran identified the arc of geostrategic opportunity and updated their regional playbooks, Israel chose to wish both sides good luck and get drunk on tactical military achievements, some of them spectacular but none of them lasting. By elevating narrow tactical considerations and feel-good PR to the level of strategic considerations, while ignoring real strategic opportunities and threats, Israel missed a historic opportunity to speed up necessary changes in border arrangements set arbitrarily at the end of World War I.
The departure of American forces from Syria now obliges Israel to exert its fullest influence to convince its ally, the United States, to acknowledge Israel’s sovereignty as a supplemental step to the coming withdrawal of American forces. There is no other horizon for the Golan Heights save for the Israeli horizon, and any Israeli withdrawal to the shores of the Kinneret guarantees a structural instability which, sooner or later, will require American military intervention.
Israel and the United States must therefore act as soon as possible to achieve international recognition of Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights, not as a gesture of goodwill but out of a clear understanding that it is a strategic security interest that both nations share.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.