Controversial move in US Congress to push for recognition of Israeli control of the Golan

Israel annexed the territory in 1981 but the international community, including the United States, regards the Golan as occupied.
Sunday 22/07/2018
A picture taken on July 20, 2018 in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows an Israeli jeep patrolling on the border between Israel and Syria. (AFP)
A picture taken on July 20, 2018 in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows an Israeli jeep patrolling on the border between Israel and Syria. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - Conservative members of the US Congress and Middle East experts are pushing for the United States to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a controversial move that could cause problems for the United States’ Arab allies.

The effort comes as Israeli officials stepped up their campaign to get US President Donald Trump to provide such recognition as a follow-up to his decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Israel has controlled the Golan Heights since the 1967 Six-Day War, taking it from Damascus, which had ruled Golan since Syria was carved out of French territory in 1944. Israel annexed the territory in 1981 but the international community, including the United States, regards the Golan as occupied.

During a hearing July 17 in the US House of Representatives, witnesses argued the move would safeguard Israel against Syrian forces as Syrian President Bashar Assad consolidates control of the country.

“Now is the perfect time to do this,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organisation of America, a pro-Israel group, referring to “growing threats” from Syria and Iran. “Bolstering Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan by conferring formal US recognition clearly serves US national security interests,” he said.

Michael Doran, who was a senior director in the National Security Council under US President George W. Bush, said recognition “would send a message to all parties, including the Russians and the Iranians, about what the US expects the new Syria to look like.

“The Russians and Iranians are working to create a Syria that will be a Russian and Iranian base of operations throughout the region,” he said. “This is a way we can state powerfully to them that we don’t accept that.”

Several former Israeli officials have called for US recognition of Israeli’s control over the Golan, following up on a request in February 2017 by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

On July 1, centrist Israeli politician Yair Lapid and former Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon wrote in the Times of Israel that “it’s time to get off the fence” and recognise Israeli control over the Golan. “It is historically just, it is strategically smart and it will allow the United States to extract a price from Assad for his despicable behaviour without putting boots on the ground in Syria,” they wrote.

The push for recognition has run into opposition in Washington among some respected authorities. Daniel Kurtzer, the US ambassador to Israel under President George W. Bush, said at the hearing the United States could cause damage by changing its longstanding policy on Golan.

“Today Israel is on the high ground both physically and diplomatically and morally,” Kurtzer said, referring to the Golan’s strategic plateau from which Israeli forces monitor Syrian movements.

Israel has gained support in the Middle East as a bulwark against Iran but “recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights when it’s not part of the discourse or diplomacy would force Arab states to distance themselves from US leadership, which is critical at this point,” Kurtzer said.

US Representative Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat, said: “My worry is that instead of the happy status quo, recognition would change the narrative away from one of Israel’s defence to one of we, the US, are overreaching.”

“This idea that military conflict transfers rights of ownership means that whoever wins the last war has the right to that territory. In the Middle East, that’s a dangerous, dangerous proposition and I don’t think it leads to a safe, secure and peaceful Middle East or a safe and secure Israel,” Lynch added.

Republican Representative Ron DeSantis, who is running for governor in Florida, which has a large Jewish population, said he convened the hearing to build support for US recognition of Israel’s control over the Golan. In May, the House of Representatives shelved DeSantis’s proposal to approve a symbolic measure expressing support for recognition.

“I think it’s a matter of just continuing to build the public case,” DeSantis said in an interview after his hearing. “If you were to contemplate relinquishing the Golan Heights, you are relinquishing it to terrorist groups and Iranian proxies, which is not good for American security in the region. We want to fight back against Iranian influence.”

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