Let’s talk about the Golan Heights

“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,” President Trump tweeted earlier this week. As with everything else the President has said and done over the past two years, Trump has been greatly criticized for those words. But is he right or wrong in what he tweeted, and how much does it matter?

Golan is mentioned four times in the Bible. It is in the region of Bashan, east of the Jordan River. Under Moses the Israelites captured Bashan, and the land was allotted to the tribe of Manasseh. Golan was designated a city of refuge, where a person guilty of manslaughter (but not of murder) could live in safety according to God’s law.

As the kingdom of Aram (ancient Syria) grew in strength, the Golan Heights became contested territory between Aram and Israel. Even before the development of modern weapons, the Heights had significant strategic military value. Like much of western Asia, the land eventually became part of the Assyrian Empire, then moved through the hands of the Babylonians, the Persians, the Macedonians, the Romans, and the Byzantines. Eventually the land was captured by Muslims, under whom it was ruled first from Baghdad, then from Egypt, and finally from the Ottoman Empire. When the Ottoman Empire fell apart after the First World War, Syria (including Golan) was made a French protectorate, although the British seem to have been more involved than the French in developing the modern state of Syria. The country first declared its independence in 1941, but over the next thirty years several Syrian governments rose and fell before the Assad family rose to power in the 1970s.

After World War II, European governments gradually gave full independence to their Asian protectorates. The British divided the land along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea between Israel and Palestine, basing ownership of each section upon whether the residents were primarily Jewish or Muslim. (They had previously done a similar division of land between India and Pakistan, based on whether the residents were primarily Hindu or Muslim. Neither division has worked well for the residents of those countries.) Almost immediately war broke out between Israel and its neighbors. The result of that war was the end of Palestine as an independent nation: some parts were captured and claimed by Israel, and other parts were assimilated by Jordan. In 1967, almost twenty years later, a second war broke out between Israel and its neighbors. During that war, Israel captured two-thirds of the Golan Heights, recognizing their strategic value. After a third war in 1973, Israel and Syria were persuaded to negotiate their borders in the Golan Heights region and elsewhere. The negotiations, overseen by American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, involved a detailed study of the region. Kissinger spent nearly the entire month of May 1974 working with both governments. He describes the process as “grueling,” adding that “the long shuttle produced an accord that, with all its inherent complexity, fragility, and mistrust, has endured….”

Shortly after he wrote those words, in 1981 Israel announced that it was annexing its occupied portion of the Golan Heights. Syria protested, and the United Nations deemed the annexation null and void, without international legal effect. Until this week, all people speaking for the United States government on this topic have agreed with the United Nations ruling.

The involvement of the United States in the wars of 1967 was largely—but not entirely—conducted with an eye aimed at the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States was one of the first nations to recognize Israel in 1948, and the Soviets tried to draw Muslim countries in Asia and north Africa into the Soviet sphere of influence. Syria and Egypt particularly benefited from Soviet military equipment and advisors. When they nearly overwhelmed Israel’s forces in 1973, President Nixon did all he could to resupply Israel. One result of his action was an Arab boycott of petroleum sold to the United States and its allies, followed by a massive increase in the price of petroleum. This threw the United States into an inflationary recession for the rest of the decade. But Israel survived the war, and shortly thereafter Egypt threw out Soviet advisors and welcomed the United States as an ally.

The Iranian revolution of 1978 demonstrated that more is involved in foreign relations than a cold war between two superpowers, as the new government in Iran was equally opposed to both the United States and the Soviet Union. Of course, the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet government in 1991; but terrorist attacks on the United States ten years afterward demonstrated that America still had powerful and determined enemies. In response, President Bush announced a war on terror, one which included attacks upon Afghanistan and Iraq. The primary goals of those attacks were to confront terrorists on their home ground and to eliminate their access to weapons of mass destruction. Another hope was that governments could be established in those countries that would include western values of freedom and democracy. It must be noted that Israel, during all these years, remained the only true democracy in the region; all its neighbors, even allies of the United States, were under dictatorships.

Years later, while the United States was still struggling to build democratic governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, citizens of Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets and effectively overthrew their dictators. In what was being called the Arab Spring, it seemed at first that a wave of freedom was moving through the Muslim world. When the people of Libya rose against their dictator, Khadafi used his armed forces to try to remain in control. In response, the United States intervened with military force to keep Khadafi from killing his own people, and he was overthrown and killed. Assad in Syria seemed to be the next tyrant to topple, but the United States did not help the people of Syria as it had helped the people of Libya. Even when it was demonstrated that the Syrian forces had used chemical weapons against citizens, they received from the United States little more than a frown and a scolding.

What makes Syria different? One difference is that Assad has maintained ties to Russia in spite of the change in government there since the 1970s. Vladimir Putin does not want the Russian people to hear of dictators being overthrown, so he has provided much support and help to Assad’s government in Syria. While the United States under Barack Obama temporized over Syria, pro-American forces were weakened and an Islamic State was declared. Problems also arose in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, as western freedom and democracy did not emerge as expected.

Donald Trump promised that he was going to do things differently. He showed this after the election but before his inauguration when he spoke with the President of the Republic of China (Taiwan). Ever since Mao’s revolution in the 1940s, American leaders and diplomats have joined the rest of the world in maintaining the fiction that China is one country and has only one legitimate government. From Truman to Nixon, the Communist government was treated by the United States as the illegitimate government, but Nixon opened communication with the Communists, and President Carter recognized the Communist government as legitimate. (All American Presidents, including Nixon and Carter, have made it clear to the Communists that a military taking of Taiwan would not be permitted.) President Reagan once spoke of “two Chinas,” but backpedaled from that position. Not speaking to the President of Taiwan was part of that diplomatic fiction which Trump chose to eschew.

Now he has recognized the reality that the Golan Heights belong to Israel and not to Syria, something which has been practically the case since 1981 (and since the occupation of the Heights began during the 1967 war, fifty-two years ago). As he does on many matters, President Trump has openly recognized reality rather than clinging to polite fictions. After all, the United States has no reason to appease Syria; its government is no friend of our government. Describing reality in blunt terms sometimes is the beginning of solving problems between nations. About the only reason to protest Trump’s statement about the Golan Heights is the reflex assumption some people make that, if Trump did it, it must be wrong. J.

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