In all of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent discussions with American leaders – particularly with Secretary of State Kerry – as well as during his visit to Moscow, the new/old topic of the Golan Heights has topped the agenda.
Tel Aviv has discovered that the first section of the unfolding US- and Russian-sponsored Syrian peace plan includes a provision to restore Syria’s sovereignty throughout all its territory, including in the Golan Heights that was annexed by Israel.
Israel is not surprised by Russia’s position, since that has remained unchanged for many years, but Tel Aviv almost feels betrayed that the White House has adopted such stance. Israeli experts complain that for a while it seemed that in the final months of his administration Obama might back down from his efforts to force Israel to withdraw from Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), but it turned out that he was only waiting to land a blow on another front – the Golan Heights. Given that the Syria plan stands a good chance of being approved by a special UN Security Council vote, all previous Security Council resolutions concerning the fate of this part of Syria’s territory will take on new relevance. In that event, Tel Aviv will inevitably be hit with powerful new international pressure on this issue that, despite all its efforts, Israel has been unable to sweep under the rug. And this is the result of Israel’s leaders own miscalculations.
Although Israel formally proclaimed from the outset that it would not interfere during the Syrian crisis, Tel Aviv has made no secret of the fact that it supports the «moderate opposition» pressing for the ouster of Bashar al-Assad. Along with the Americans, the Israelis have provided financial and logistical support to the «moderates», primarily inside Jordan and its neighboring Syrian provinces of Quneitra and Dara’a. No one is thinking about the fact that if Assad leaves, radical Islamists who are fiercely hostile to Israel will seize power.
In fact, experts as well as a few politicians have often put forth the argument that regime change in Syria and the probable subsequent breakup of the country will create a new geopolitical reality that is to Israel’s advantage. The idea is that if new state entities were to replace Syria (Kurdish in the northeast, Sunni in the center of the country, and Alawite in Latakia) that might kindle a serious discussion of self-determination for the Golan as well.
Although quite sparsely populated, the Golan plateau measures 1,150 sq. kilometers, produces over one-third of all the freshwater in Israel and grows up to half of many types of the country’s fresh produce. Only 20,000 Jewish settlers live here, even though, according to some estimates, the land could easily accommodate up to half a million people. This region was declared to be an integral part of Israel back in 1981 – an act that was at the time condemned by UN Security Council Resolution 497.
The autochthonous inhabitants are considered to be the legitimate bearers of statehood in the Golan. They consist of approximately 20,000 Syrian Druze who have refused the offer of Israeli citizenship and retain their Syrian passports. One distinctive characteristic of this ethno-religious group, who speak Arabic but practice a syncretic religion that includes elements of Islam, Hinduism, etc., is their undying loyalty to the state in which they live. For example, the Druze who reside in central Israel near Haifa (and number about 50,000) are loyal Israeli citizens who serve in the army and often rise to fairly high ranks. The Druze of Lebanon are fiercely patriotic toward that country. And the Syrian Druze have the same feelings about Syria. However, radical Islamists see the Druze as heretics who must be punished by death, and if their neighbors – the Islamic State (IS) – manage to establish their own version of law and order, then a number of Israeli experts believe that the Druze in the Golan will themselves be forced to hold a referendum in order to «reunite» with Israel, which is the safer option for them. This expression of the popular will could qualify for international recognition.
However, by the time the Russian Aerospace Forces launched their operation in Syria, Israel’s leaders realized that they had obviously underestimated the threat posed by IS. That organization has proved to be terrifyingly effective in creating a military force that utilizes not only suicide bombers, but also the latest technology. The dawning of this realization – although belated and incomplete – has created a rather favorable backdrop for the Russian operation on Israel’s flank.
Unfortunately, there are many opponents – both in Israel itself as well as overseas – of the currently modest level of cooperation between the armed forces of Israel and Russia.
Nor are those calculations quite working out in regard to the division of Syria followed by self-determination for the Golan Druze. It is already clear that whoever wins the Syrian civil war, that party will work to preserve the state’s territorial integrity. This viewpoint is shared by officials in Damascus, even if they must form a coalition with the secular and moderate Islamic opposition. Nor is IS interested in the idea of carving off a piece of Syrian territory. The most that anyone dares to suggest would be a certain degree of autonomy for the Kurds in a future design of the Syrian state, which does not help to solve the problem of the Golan to Israel’s satisfaction. The international community is unanimously opposed to the very idea of partitioning Syria, since that would have far-reaching, grave consequences for the entire region. The struggle for «the legacy of Syria» is capable of detonating the entire Middle East.
The paradox is that from the perspective of Israel’s interests, there is only one scenario that more or less guarantees to preserve at least the current status of the Golan Heights, and that is if Bashar al-Assad keeps a firm grip on power in Syria. Of course, Assad will never abandon his demands for the return of the Golan, but given how the West feels about him, he certainly wouldn’t find any support there. But now, with an eye toward creating a coalition government in Damascus, that kind of support is exactly what the US is promising them if the parties reconcile. Voices in Israel have already been heard claiming that the Americans want success in Syria «at Israel’s expense». It turns out that in the attempt to improve their position in regard to this issue, the leaders of Israel are faced with a worse situation than they otherwise might have.
Realizing this, Netanyahu can be seen actively maneuvering diplomatically, doing his best to salvage the situation. He has categorically stated that he is not planning to make any concessions in regard to the Golan Heights, and he even scheduled a government meeting on location there, promising to allocate funds to develop Druze villages. This only resulted in protests in many European countries, as well as prompting a special meeting of the Arab League, which asked the UN Security Council to censure Israel. Israel’s hard-won special relationship with Egypt and Saudi Arabia is now threatened.
Israeli security experts Giora Eiland and Amos Yadlin have called Netanyahu’s actions regarding the status of the Golan a «dangerous game». Yadlin claims that for a long time no one raised the issue of the status of the Golan Heights, but that now everything has turned against the Israelis.