“The Golan Heights will forever remain in Israel’s hands. Israel will never come down from the Golan Heights”: With these words, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commenced his cabinet session on March 24, 2019. Israel and Syria have been contesting over the region since the Six-Day War in June 1976. His speech, in which he repeatedly reinforced Israel’s claim over the Golan Heights, went ahead to eclipse all public forums and debates.
It was clear that his speech was either intended as an election gimmick, to woo the general masses towards the strength of their leader, or, more ominously, an indication to propagate Israel’s powerful foreign policy. Many viewed it as a move to draw focus from a global audience - not just Syrian or Arab, but Russian and American as well. As the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria continues, the old and new players must change their stakes and claims, to better position themselves for the butchering of Syria’s decaying sovereignty.
This calculated move by King Bibi, as he is called in Israel, dropped the first domino in a chain of events that ultimately resulted in Trump’s declaration of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Changing the status quo of the annexation holds significant value for the relationship between the United States and Israel. With the movement of the US embassy to Jerusalem, and with the recognition of Israel’s right over a deeply disputed territory, Netanyahu is trying to cement strong ties with the US. But the history and strategic importance of the Golan Heights in the Middle East stands in his way.
During the end stages of the 1967 War, Israel seized the majority of the Golan Heights region which was until then a plateau in southwestern Syria. Most of the Syrian and Arab inhabitants fled the area during the conflict. Syria’s attempt to recapture the region in the 1973 Middle East War failed. Both countries signed an armistice in 1974 and the UN observer force has been in place on the ceasefire line since then. However, things got rougher when Israel unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981. Until Trump’s recent recognition of the annexation, there had been no change in the status quo of the region. Over the last fifty years, the scars of the Six-Day War haven’t healed and despite Israeli settlements in the region, neither side is willing to give up its claim.
In terms of strategic importance and national security, Golan Heights is vital for both the nations involved. Southern Syria and Damascus are clearly visible from the top of the Heights. On the other hand, the northern part of Israel is exposed to the Golan Heights, and it was used regularly by Syrian artillery units for shelling, between 1948 and 1967, back when Syria controlled the Heights. The Heights give Israel an excellent vantage point for monitoring Syrian movements. The topography provides a natural shield against any military thrust from Syria. In an arid region, the Golan Heights offers both fertility and freshwater resources, and essentially the rainwater from the Golan’s catchment goes into the Jordan River which provides a third of Israel’s water supply. Thus, the historic, geographic and strategic vitality of Golan Heights for both Syria and Israel makes it sufficiently clear that neither country is easily going to give up its claim.
Peace talks to resolve the issue have been going on for a long period as well. In the US-brokered peace talks of 1999-2000, a significant amount of progress was made when Israel agreed to return most of the captured territory to the Syrian administration. However, the demand of Syria for a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 border didn’t make the deal a success. This would have given Damascus control of the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee - Israel’s main source of freshwater. Naturally, this was too large a sacrifice for Israel and the possibility of resolution completely collapsed. Indirect talks between Israel and Syria resumed in 2008, through Turkish government intermediaries, but were abruptly suspended following the resignation of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over a corruption inquiry. The Obama Administration, once again, tried to forge peace but failed as the Syrian civil war engulfed the nation in 2011.
With the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister, for the first time, most experts expected Israel’s stance to become harder on the Golan Heights issue. So far, in all its peace endeavours, Israel had actively sought the cooperation of Syria for resolution and the former had also agreed to the giving up of certain portions of the contested areas for peaceful settlement of the decades-old issue. However, with these announcements, the foundational policy of Israel’s foreign policy is changing. Instead of going for bilateral resolution, Israel is structuring its decisions to enhance its prowess on the global stage. And the vested interests of the US in Israel have made it reverse years of its own stance. For decades, the United Nations and the United States have refused to recognise Israel’s seizure of the Golan Heights and the West Bank in 1967, arguing that the contours of Israel must be negotiated diplomatically. But President Trump tweeted that “it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” adding that it was of critical importance to Israel and stability in the Middle East.
Thus, the US withdrawal from the Syrian crisis is changing both the power dynamics and policy decisions of the Middle East. The United States has already reversed its opinion on the sovereign rights of Israel over the Golan Heights, even though its allies, mainly Canada and the European Union, have not followed suit. Most Arab countries also disagree with the change in the status quo. With the US and Russia coming into the equation, Israel is rising as a country, which is outward-looking and integrated with the global system. Such hard stances will, quite incontrovertibly, lead to rising tensions. But the silver lining is that these stances help Israel in extensive adaptation to the role of a strengthened US ally, which has a geographical advantage, with the power to dominate the overpopulated and confused Middle Eastern stage. Thus, if everything goes as planned, coming back into the office, PM Netanyahu has more to gloat over than to sulk about. As the administration stays the same, so does the policy, and Middle East has a few more battles coming it’s way.
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