U.S recognition in the Golan Heights as "part of the State of Israel" is an important political achievement for Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu, but it is not certain that the way it was done will not escalate a reality that until now has been tacitly agreed upon
Recently, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Nasrallah delivered a speech in which he responded to US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
"The only option for the Syrians to return the Golan Heights, and the Lebanese to return the Shebaa Farms and Ghajar, and the only option for the Palestinians to accept their legitimate rights is resistance, resistance and resistance," Nasrallah said.
Beyond the border, in Syria and Lebanon, it is hard to believe that there will be tolerance for international recognition of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the Six-Day War (and managed to keep in its hands in 1973 and thereafter) as an Israeli sovereign territory. This could constitute a precedent for the possibility that additional areas will be recognized as such. Given that Hezbollah and other Shiite militias have established an operational infrastructure on the Syrian side of the border, as the IDF revealed last month (in a cognitive operation), Nasrallah’s declaration is a clear threat.
Last month, leaders of the Blue and White Party visited the northern part of Israel. Even though the four, Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon, Gabi Ashkenazi and Yair Lapid were mainly focused in trying to recruit votes and supporters, its likely that the north is connected mainly to their experiences from the military service. The former chiefs of staff fought for many years across the border, some against the Syrians, all of them in Lebanon, in the raids of the Paratroopers (Ya’alon and Gantz) and Golani (Ashkenazi) brigades, and operations. Even Lapid, who was a military correspondent in Bamahane, spent (though not as a fighter) a considerable amount of time in his service in the outposts in Lebanon.
During the tour in the North, the four referred to threats by Hezbollah and Syria. In his press conference, Gantz stressed that there is an "Iranian front that sits on the border of the State of Israel, and we will know how to deal with any threat in any arena, as much as necessary." Lapid, for his part, pledged on behalf of the four, "We will never return the Golan Heights."
The person who took care of Lapid’s commitment was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in the past was among those who negotiated with the Syrians, in which he was asked to give up control of the Golan Heights. During Netanyahu’s visit to Washington last week, President Trump signed a presidential proclamation recognizing the Golan Heights as part of the State of Israel. For Netanyahu, too, the North is connected to his personal military service as a soldier and commander in the Sayeret Matkal IDF elite unit.
IN HIS book Autobiography, Maj.-Gen. (Ret.) Giora Eiland referred to the negotiations that Prime Minister Ehud Barak held in 1999 with then-Syrian president Hafez al-Assad and argued that Israel should not agree to a peace arrangement with Syria in which it relinquishes its control over the Golan Heights. Eiland, who like Gantz, Ya’alon and Ashkenazi, participated in raids in Lebanon (in one of them, as a paratrooper battalion commander, he took with him a stubborn platoon leader named Ofer Shelah, now number eight in Blue and White’s list), admitted that he had formulated his insights after his retirement. He noted that he had hoped that the negotiations between Israel and Syria would not grow into a peace agreement in which Israel would relinquish the territory.
In his view, Prime Minister Barak relied on wrong assumptions. First, if the Syrian army moved forces to the Golan Heights, Israel would know about this in real time, which is not necessarily true. Second, it is not at all certain that Israel would understand and correctly interpret the movement of Syrian forces aimed toward war (in 1973, for example, Israel did not understand this). Third, because of the time required for such a decision, the Syrians would be the first to arrive to the battlefield and gain the upper hand.
Another assumption is that an international monitoring mechanism that would enforce the agreement might indeed monitor tanks and cannons, but it would be less effective in detecting sophisticated surface-to-surface missiles with long range and accuracy, and anti-tank missiles, which are relatively easy to conceal but whose impact on the battle is significant.
It is hard to counter Eiland’s arguments – and since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria that undermined the stability of Bashar Assad’s regime, it became clear that other troubling scenarios might also materialize. Iran was allowed to establish military infrastructures in Syria and to act against Israel, which for its part is conducting a long and largely secret campaign to prevent it. As part of that campaign, according to foreign publications, the IAF recently attacked Iranian weapons depots near Aleppo.
WHY DO we need all this noise now? The Golan has been under Israeli control for more than 50 years and no state entity can take control of it without Israeli consent. Moreover, Trump’s statement, which appears to be a finger in the eye of the international community, has only motivated Western Europe, Russia, the Arab countries, Iran and Syria to act against it. The Syrians and their allies from Iran may also decide to "use terror and guerrilla attacks" from the Syrian side of the border, just as Nasrallah declared in his speech.
In the eyes of Israeli prime ministers, only one member of the international community is a heavyweight – the United States. This perception has not changed, and with good reason. American backing, even now, is a powerful credit. In an article on the subject in Israel Hayom, Maj.-Gen. (Ret.) Israel Ziv, who like Eiland served as a paratrooper officer and as the head of the Agaf HaMivtza’im (Operations Directorate), wrote that "Israel will be required to conduct an uncompromising legitimization battle, while increasing efforts to prevent Iranian entrenchment on the other side of the border. The American declaration on the Golan Heights will no doubt help these efforts."
Recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan is important, but the way it was done – not through the UN Security Council and without the broad consensus of the international community – is damaging. It is not certain that the tacit agreement to Israeli control over the Golan Heights, which was the American policy until now, would not have been more effective at this time.
(The article was published in "The Jerusalem Post", April 7, 2019)