Fourteen years after seizing the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel officially annexed the region in 1981. Although Syria continues to claim its former territory, Israel is determined to build new settlements, thereby reinforcing the notion that the Golan Heights belongs to the Jewish state.
On December 14, 1981, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin summoned his cabinet to enact a law to exercise Israeli rule over the occupied Golan Heights, making it a de facto annexation. Begin justified his actions, inter alia, by citing the extreme stance of the Syrian government towards Israel, after Syrian President Hafez Assad stated Syria would not recognize Israel for 100 years, even if the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) did so.
That same day, the draft law was passed in the Knesset with 63 votes in favor and 21 against in three readings. From the Israeli point of view, the Golan Heights became part of the State of Israel.
Most nations refused to recognize Israel’s annexation.
Most nations refused to recognize Israel’s annexation. This included Israel’s primary ally, the US, which expressed deep concern and opposition to the move under President Ronald Reagan and even suspended a military cooperation agreement with Israel in response.
Meanwhile, the United Nations passed Resolution 497, which stated that “the Israeli decision to enforce its laws, jurisdiction and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights is null and void and has no international legal effect.”
Israel’s decision was based on domestic political considerations as well as ideology. Begin believed in Greater Israel, a vision that all areas of “historical Palestine” should belong to Israel. Moreover, the Golan Heights’ location made it a pivotal region for security reasons.
The area is only 60 kilometers long and 25 kilometers wide. However, from various positions in the Golan Heights, the Syrian artillery can bombard large parts of northern Israel, which they regularly did before the Israeli occupation in 1967.
After the Six-Day War in 1967, most Syrian residents had to flee or were expelled. Only a few villages remained. In total, around 50,000 people live in the sparsely populated region today. More than half of them are Jewish settlers. Arab Druze and Alawites are also present in the region.
After the Six-Day War in 1967, most Syrian residents had to flee or were expelled.
Syria’s earlier attempts to retake the Golan in 1973 failed. The Yom Kippur War, also known as the Fourth Israeli-Arab War, ended in 1974 with a ceasefire agreement between Syria and Israel and the deployment of a United Nations Blue Helmet mission, conducted by the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).
To date, various efforts to negotiate a peace agreement between the two countries have been fruitless.
According to the Israeli position, the complete or partial return of the Golan Heights to Syria should only take place during the course of a full-fledged peace treaty. Additional endeavors at rapprochement between Israel and Syria in 2000 also proved futile.
Several Israeli prime ministers have indicated their willingness, in principle, to compromise on the territory, most recently Ehud Olmert. In December 2003, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unsuccessfully proposed a resumption of negotiations with Israel. Although the Israeli government denied official contacts with Syria, indirect talks between the two states have occurred since 2004 with Turkish mediation.
In May 2008, the Syrian and Israeli governments again announced that they would begin official peace talks, with the return of the Golan Heights at the center of the negotiations.
To this day, the talks never went further and ceased altogether in 2011 after the beginning of the Syrian Civil War.
The importance of the Golan is that it remains a crucial buffer zone for Israel.
Aside from historical, ideological, and emotional reasons, the importance of the Golan is that it remains a crucial buffer zone for Israel, protecting it against the chaos in Syria and the presence of Iranian proxies and Hezbollah militias.
Israel seeks to prevent Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah, which support the regime in Damascus, from forming a united front against Israel in Syria and consolidating their presence. In response, the Israeli Air Force has conducted numerous, albeit mostly unconfirmed, attacks on arms convoys and military positions in Syria in recent years.
These developments have made it unlikely that the status quo will change. Moreover, the latest Israeli government declarations will make it somewhat impossible to ever come to terms, even if the geopolitical situation around Israel, particularly in Syria, changes.
In his October 2021 speech, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett reminded his audience of the decision made by his predecessor Begin. “Forty years ago, Israel’s Menachem Begin government made an incredibly bold and important decision: to apply Israeli law to the Golan Heights,” said Bennett.
At the same time, he announced that he would double the Israeli population in the territory in the next few years and that he would build two new settlements for this purpose.
Bennett’s plan passed the Knesset in December 2021, with the triumphant prime minister stating, “This is our moment. This is the Golan Heights moment.” Bennett went one step further, leaving no doubt about the Golan Heights’ future: “The Golan Heights is Israeli, period.”
Bennett announced that he would double the Israeli population in the territory.
In the Jewish settlement of Qatsrin, Israel now seeks to build two new quarters. In addition, two new settlements, Assif and Matar, are to be built in the territory. Bennet is also striving to turn the Golan Heights into Israel’s renewable energy technology hub.
Bennett declared that the US had encouraged further settlement development. He was referring to the drastic action taken by then President Donald Trump in March 2019 recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights. In a move meant to bolster a jubilant former PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s standing, shortly before Israeli parliamentary elections, a single stroke of a pen changed decades of US foreign policy.
In December, Bennett indicated that the Israeli government was initiating the multi-million-dollar renewable energy project since the current Biden administration does not seem willing or interested in reversing Trump’s decision.
Indeed, in an interview with CNN in February 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked if the Biden administration would continue to “see the Golan Heights as part of Israel.” His reply: “Look, leaving aside the legalities of that question, as a practical matter, the Golan is very important to Israel’s security,” Blinken said.
“The Golan is very important to Israel’s security,” Blinken said.
“As long as Assad is in power in Syria, as long as Iran is present in Syria, militia groups backed by Iran, the Assad regime itself – all of these pose a significant security threat to Israel, and as a practical matter, the control of the Golan in that situation I think remains of real importance to Israel’s security,” Blinken added.
While Blinken did not close the chapter on the Golan Heights entirely, it remains a peculiar non-action by the Biden administration, which, during the election campaign, had pledged to change course on Trump Middle East policy and his carte blanche to Israel.
To be sure, skeptics never believed Biden’s words in the first place. After all, he has been part of the foreign policy establishment that has long been unconditionally supportive of Israel.
Israel and the Middle East are no longer an overarching priority for the US. Biden’s attention is on a Covid pandemic still uncontained, a politically divided nation, and a Republican Party that – with few exceptions — has pledged unconditional loyalty to Trump. Then, there is China, the US’ systemic rival and challenger of Washington’s hegemony. And last but not least, Biden’s focus is now also on Russia and Putin’s threat to invade Ukraine.
This is very good news for Israeli officials as they will continue to build new settlements in the Golan, while the US turns a blind eye to the Jewish state and the region as a whole.