The US president's recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights has, again, caught the international community unprepared. Both the European Union and the Arab League denounced the move. This is not the first time that President Donald Trump has shown the political will to move forward with commitments as related to Israel that his predecessors did not execute. Previous American presidents blocked the diplomatic maneuvers that President Trump is now pursuing, including the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and the relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem.
The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital can be seen from a lens of religious significance, particularly concerning the holy places of the three major monotheistic religions. However, American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights carries with it paramount strategic and economic significance. While it may sound counter-intuitive to some, the American recognition of long-standing reality may prevent a forthcoming war. The Druze citizens of the Golan Heights will benefit from the American-Israeli diplomatic consensus. And, moving forward, there will be benefit to the safety and economic welfare of the citizens of the Golan.
A Bloody History:
The Golan Heights is a mountainous region located both in Israel and Syria. After the Israeli triumph in the Six-Day War of 1967, about two-thirds of the Golan Heights was transferred to Israeli control. This was part of a miraculous and remarkable victory for Israel, after fighting off belligerent nations on three fronts. The war began after a number of rhetorical and strategic provocations on the part of Egyptian and Syrian leadership, including assurances that the united Arab forces would destroy Israel and bring about a second Holocaust. The decision to liberate the Golan Heights followed pressure from Israeli settlers who lived in the area. Those settlers, prior to 1967, suffered from constant artillery bombardments coming from Syrian positions atop the Golan Heights. In 1981, Israel annexed the territory despite international objections. The Arab residents of the Golan Heights were offered Israeli citizenship but refused to accept it, fearing retribution from the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, the Druze minority of the Golan Heights has been the subject of discrimination at the hands of the minority Alawite regime ruling Syria.
Over the course of the last several decades, thousands of Israelis settled the Golan Heights. Despite a lack of international recognition of the Israeli sovereignty over the area, the Israeli newcomers brought economic renewal to the Golan Heights. Whereas once the Golan Heights was poor and undeveloped, it has become a haven for agriculture, tourism, and viticulture; indeed, Israeli guesthouses and hotels dot the area, and unique agricultural products are cultivated both for domestic consumption and for export. The Hermon Mountain has become a successful ski resort. In the Golan Heights, approximately 22,000 Jews join 23,000 Druze in their efforts to rebuild and renew the region. Since 1981, the Druze residents of the area have reaped the benefits of the economic renaissance.
Since the 1990s, there has been sporadic peace negotiations between Syria and Israel. The Syrians have demanded the return of the Golan Heights in full as a condition of peace. One Israeli prime minister, the late Yitzhak Rabin, agreed to this plan–at least in principle. However, the former and current Syrian leaders–Bashar al-Assad and his son, respectively–have not agreed to move forward with the peace plan as discussed previously. They have not done what Anwar Sadat did in the aftermath of the 1967 and 1973 Wars: take a profound leap of faith and sign a peace agreement with Israel. Despite pressure from the United States, the Syrian regime's hatred of Israel–and its use, or re-purposing, of the State of Israel as a propaganda tool–have discouraged the consummation of a peace deal. What's more, it is important to bear in mind that the Syrian regime governs over a failed state and has been responsible for the mass murder of its own people. And in order to sustain support, and to divert attention from its own failings, the Syrian government puts forth an image of Israel as a demonic enemy–whereas, in fact, the real enemy of the Syrian people, the entity most responsible for the misery of those in Damascus and Aleppo, is the Syrian government itself. There is frequently a discrepancy between the scope and nature of relationships between Israel and Arab governments, and the image of Israel propagated by the Arab regimes to their populations.
It turned out that the annexation of the Golan Heights by Israel was a matter of life over death for the Druze community. While a Civil War has ravaged almost all of Syria, and has resulted in bloodshed within the Druze community in Syria and beyond, the Druze residents of Israel have reaped the benefits of stability and economic prosperity. Like all citizens of Israel, the Druze enjoy the full protection of the Israeli government and the Israeli Defense Forces.
Israel has acted as a good Samaritan and good neighbor with respect to the Syrian conflict. While prioritizing the integrity of its own territory and well-being of its citizens, Israel has treated thousands of wounded Syrians from across the border–victims of the Civil War, of Assad's regime, or of the savagery of ISIS. While Assad has invested millions of dollars in weapons of mass destruction so as to kill his own people–entire towns and cities at a time–Israel has invested similar sums in treating the wounded and rescuing innocent victims of the conflict. While the EU paid little attention to Israel's role as a provider of aid, President Trump and the government of the United States have praised Israel's efforts. The Americans see that Syria–itself established as an artificial state with meaningless boundaries crafted by colonial powers–is falling apart, and that it is preferable for the region that the Golan Heights remains in Israeli hands. Israeli sovereignty in the region protects the lives of the local residents and provides them with economic opportunity. Therefore, the status quo should remain in force.
Eli Hazan is the Foreign Affairs Director at The Likud Party