If Israel is to survive in the region, it will need to eventually reach a peace agreement with the Syrians and the Palestinians.
Like on many other international issues, US President Donald Trump is simply wrong when it comes to how to deal with the issue of the Golan Heights. On March 21, he tweeted: “After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability.” Just days later, he signed a proclamation to confirm the move.
That is not the way to guarantee Israel’s long-term security, or American interests in the Middle East. By now it should be clear that, alongside the maintenance of a strong Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Jordanian peace treaties are two major keys to guaranteeing the country’s security. The two missing pieces in Israel’s security puzzle are peace treaties with Syria and with the Palestinians. Although they may not be attainable in the short term, it should be clear to anyone with a minimal understanding of security affairs that eventual agreements with the Syrians and Palestinians are essential to ensuring the country’s future in the Middle East.
Syria will never sign a peace agreement with Israel without a return of the Golan Heights, which until 1967 were known as the Syrian Heights. And this is not just Syria’s position. It is also the position of the entire Arab and Muslim world, so there should be no illusions about this in the Trump administration, whether it be President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or the Middle East peace process team of Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and Ambassador David Friedman.
Just read the terms of the Arab Peace Initiative, which was adopted at the Arab League Summit Conference in Beirut in 2002, since reaffirmed many times. It expresses the readiness of all 22 Arab states, backed by all 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, to have peace and normal relations with Israel. This is on condition that Israel will “Withdraw fully from the occupied Arab territories, including the Syrian Golan to the line of 4 June 1967, and from the territories in southern Lebanon that are still occupied.”
And Trump should have no illusions about his friends — President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia — being ready to accept anything less than that. It should be recalled that the Arab Peace Initiative originally began with the Saudi Initiative.
A Demilitarized Golan Heights
This doesn’t mean that after an agreement to return the Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty that the Syrian army should be allowed to return to the territory. The presence of the Syrian army on the heights was a clear and present danger to the Upper Galilee communities in Northern Israel. I am fully aware of this, since I served in the IDF’s Combat Engineering Corps for seven months on the Golan Heights in 1973-74 after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, and have vivid memories of the sound of Syrian weapons being fired at my unit.
In any agreement, the Golan Heights will have to be demilitarized. There are many proposals that could guarantee a peaceful future for the territory, such as creating a national park area on the heights between the town of Quneitra and the ridge overlooking the Sea of Galilee, the kibbutzim and the cities of Tiberias and Kiryat Shemoneh down below.
Although I live now in Tel Aviv, in February 1974 I had the privilege of representing my kibbutz, Barkai, in a debate about the establishment of two new kibbutzim on the ridge of the Golan Heights. The position I expressed was that the establishment of such kibbutzim would be an obstacle to the future possibilities for peace between Israel and Syria. I was backed by my division commander, who gave me leave from my unit to participate in the debate. He said, “Tell them that settlements on the Golan only get in the way of the army’s ability to defend the country. After-all, all the civilians on the heights had to be evacuated back to Israel proper when the war began.”
After a prolonged discussion, which required two sessions of the national kibbutz council — the first one in Tel Aviv, and the second one at a northern kibbutz that included a trip up to the ridge to see the Syrian positions which overlooked the kibbutzim down below — I’m very proud of being part of the compromise decision that was arrived at. The two kibbutzim built on the ridge of the Golan Heights by the Kibbutz Artzi-Hashomer Hatzair movement were the only “conditional” kibbutzim established in the history of the country — the condition being that if they were to become an obstacle to a peace agreement, they would move back to Israel proper.
It’s true that for the past eight years, Syria has been immersed in a bloody civil war. However, it is clearly winding down, and despite the brutality of the government, many Israeli security experts prefer the stability provided by Bashar al-Assad’s regime to chaos, and definitely to a fundamentalist regime associated with the Islamic State. The fact is that Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu (ask his then-representative Ron Lauder) all negotiated with the Assad regimes — father and son — based on the idea of returning the Golan Heights to the Syrians in exchange for peace.
It’s not only the Trump administration that should understand this. The same is true for Prime Minister Netanyahu and his chief rivals, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, all of whom are today advocating a refusal to return the Golan Heights to the Syrians. That is the height of shortsightedness, even if it is a popular slogan for elections.
If Israel is to survive in long-range terms in the region, it will need to eventually reach a peace agreement with the Syrians and the Palestinians, to go alongside the agreements with Egypt and Jordan. This will not be achieved tomorrow. But it should still be the strategic goal of the Israeli leadership, and also of a responsible American leadership concerned with Israel’s best interests and a secure and stable Middle East.
*[A version of this article was originally published on The Times of Israel’s blogs.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.