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Why Ted Cruz Broke With U.S. Foreign Policy to Say Israel Should Keep the Golan Heights

The Texas Senator’s position that Israel should retain the contested territory is a longstanding one, and a reflection of his foreign policy iconoclasm

Armin Rosen
April 22, 2016
Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images
A picture taken on February 21, 2016, from the Israeli-annexed Syrian Golan Heights shows a section of the border fence between the Golan Heights and Syria. Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images
Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images
A picture taken on February 21, 2016, from the Israeli-annexed Syrian Golan Heights shows a section of the border fence between the Golan Heights and Syria. Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images

The Syrian Civil War has sidelined one of the thornier issues in Israeli foreign policy, possibly for the next several decades. Israel and Syria aren’t going to be making peace any time soon, which means Israel isn’t likely to relinquish control over the strategic Golan Heights until long after the conflict in the country has ended.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said as much on April 17 after a cabinet meeting in the Golan. There, the Israeli leader announced that Israel would never return the area to Syrian control, and called on the international community to recognize the Golan as Israeli territory. A few days later, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz echoed Netanyahu’s claim, saying that the government of Israel had merely “reiterated the reality that the Golan Heights are part of Israel’s sovereign territory.” The Texas Senator is now the only contender for the presidency to go on-record in support of recognizing Israeli authority over the region.

The statement puts Cruz at odds with decades of U.S. policy. No country considers the Golan, which Israel captured during the Six-Day War and annexed in 1981 to be part of Israel—although the Syrian state’s loss of control over the areas bordering the Golan along with the chaos of the country’s civil war have taken away much of the international pressure for Israel to withdraw. The collapse of state authority in Syria has even bolstered arguments that Israeli rule over the Golan is legitimate under certain interpretations of international law.

But the Israeli-Arab peace process is premised on the return of captured territories. In the post-Oslo era, the Golan hasn’t been considered so fundamental a part of Israel’s territorial integrity that it couldn’t be bargained away, in spite of the 1981 annexation. Israel and Syria participated in a high-level peace summit in 2000, under the Labor government of Ehud Barak. Turkey mediated peace talks between Israel and Syria in the late 2000, when the centrist Ehud Olmert was in power. Even the Likudnik Benjamin Netanyahu—who likely saw peace with Syria as a way of isolating Hezbollah and flipping an Iranian client state—entered into talks over a possible withdrawal from the Heights in 2010.

Both Cruz’s and Netanyahu’s statements thus represent a break with past policy. Cruz’s is the more radical of the two positions, as it represents a rejection of longstanding U.S. policy on the region’s status. On April 19th, State Department officials once again clarified that America still does not believe the Golan to be part of Israel.

Cruz’s statement builds on Netanyahu’s, but it’s likely a reflection of sincere belief rather than opportunism. The Texas Senator had staked out a position on the Golan long before Netanyahu’s announcement. In early March, senior Cruz foreign policy advisor Victoria Coates told me that the Senator “has made very clear” that the status of Golan is “an internal matter for Israel.” She noted that the United States recognizes what could be considered more controversial territorial annexations–accepting Tibet as part of China, for instance–and that it should be less of a stretch to acknowledge the Golan as sovereign Israeli territory.

More generally, Cruz has positioned himself as a challenger of American foreign policy taboos, even before he entered the presidential race. In March of 2013, Cruz was the only sponsor on a failed amendment that would have “create[d] a point of order against any legislation that would provide taxpayer funds to the United Nations” as long as any member state forced its citizens or residents to “undergo involuntary abortions.” He was one of only three senators who voted against John Kerry’s confirmation as Secretary of State. He’s introduced legislation that would designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, an idea with relatively thin support among mainstream foreign policy experts. Cruz is also virtually alone among major elected U.S. officials in believing that the US should reverse its policy of calling for the removal of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Cruz’s support for recognizing Israeli authority over the Golan Heights is just the latest position that distinguishes him from the American foreign policy consensus, and from his opponents in the presidential race. In the domestic political sphere, Cruz’s unwavering principles—and alleged disregard for the resulting consequences–sparked a 21-hour Senate filibuster against the Affordable Care Act and even a government shutdown. His statement on the Golan is just the latest example of how a President Cruz’s iconoclasm could play out on foreign policy, too.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.