Another Low on the Golan Heights

The argument that decades of occupation grant possession of a territory for all eternity is not accepted anywhere in the world.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a tour of the Golan Heights in 2012.
Yaron Kaminsky

During 1967’s Six-Day War, the Israel Defense Forces captured Sinai, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights (which until then had been known as “the Syrian Heights” – the Golan, like Mount Hermon and the Bashan region, had geographical rather than political connotations). The Sinai Peninsula, up to the last grain of sand, was returned to Egypt in the 1979 peace treaty. Israel unilaterally evacuated the Gaza Strip and, equally unilaterally, annexed two areas: Greater Jerusalem (the Old City, neighborhoods outside the walls and nearby villages), near the end of the Six-Day War; and, 14 years later, the Golan Heights.

No international entity recognized Israeli sovereignty over these areas. UN Security Council Resolution 242, “land for peace,” is based on the inadmissibility of obtaining territories by force. Israel may decide for itself that possession of the Golan Heights is better than peace without the Golan, in the spirit of Moshe Dayan’s argument at the time about Sharm el-Sheikh in Sinai – a claim defeated by the disaster of the Yom Kippur War. However, international efforts to end the civil war in Syria show that the expiration date is approaching on the world’s patience when it comes to the conquest and annexation of the Golan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understood 20 years ago that the fate of the Golan Heights is not solely in Israel’s hands. And so, although when he was outside the government, he railed against the talks Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres held with the Syrians, when he came to power he also held talks with Damascus and was prepared for far-reaching concessions. His attempts to seek an agreement with Syria, involving Israeli withdrawal to near the eastern shoreline of Lake Kinneret, were renewed when he returned to the premiership in the form of mediation missions by the Obama administration.

As the all-out war in Syria became longer and more complicated, the illusion that Israel would not have to withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace dissipated recently. It is clear that the principle of Syrian sovereignty over Syrian lands also applies to land captured from it 49 years ago. The argument that decades of occupation grant possession of a territory for all eternity is not accepted anywhere in the world. According to this principle, all colonial countries would have an inherent right to their colonies – and even the Jewish state wouldn’t have had the right to establish its independence.

Netanyahu is in love with his vacuous statement that he always achieves his goals. Flying the cabinet for a meeting on the Golan Heights and his declaration that Israel will remain there forever was for domestic consumption only. Netanyahu was defeated on the nuclear agreement of the world powers with Iran. If an accepted and responsible regime is found in Damascus to negotiate for peace, Netanyahu’s wall of words will not protect the Golan Heights.