Alan Silverstein

Golan Heights – The Diplomacy Case for Israeli Sovereignty

1. Did Israel acquire the Golan Heights in the context of a Just War?

According to international law, an “occupation” occurs when a country launches an unjust war of aggression against a neighbor and retains control of conquered land.

For example, in 1974, Turkey invaded and then occupied a large portion of Cyprus. In 1950, China took over Tibet. In 2014, Russia moved militarily into Crimea and so forth.

In contrast, during a war of self-defense, if the targeted state emerges victorious, they need not withdraw nor be accused of “occupying” the land acquired.

In the 1990s, I visited the former Breslau Germany, locale of the historic Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau. At the outset of WWII, the Nazis conquered Poland. As the war was ending, the German army was in retreat. The Poles moved westward, taking the municipality of Breslau. It was renamed Wroclaw, part of Poland to this day. This is not an OCCUPATION. It is the price of aggression.

Syrian aggression against Israel was continuous throughout Israel’s initial decades, with dozens of casualties. In particular, the Syrian army shelled Israeli villages and farms from the Golan Heights, with increasing intensity in 1965 and 1966. Israeli children in the Huleh Valley’s kibbutzim slept in bomb shelters.

In the spring of 1967, the armies of Egypt and Syria unified under the command of Gamel Abdul Nasser. They amassed troops and promised “to drive the Jews into the sea.” They evicted the UN Peace Keeping Force, seized control of the Suez Canal and closed Straits of Tiran to Israeli and Israeli-bound shipping.

This blockade represented an act of war against the Jewish State. Syrian Defense Minister Hafez Assad proclaimed that “our forces now are entirely ready… to initiate the act of liberation [of all of Palestine]… to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland. …the time has come to enter into a battle of annihilation.”

Israeli diplomat Abba Eban traveled to the UN, then to Paris, then London and Washington DC, pleading for intervention. But Israel was left isolated, facing amassing Arab forces on all sides.

In a Just War of self-defense, Israel’s air force attacked and destroyed many war planes poised for the Egyptian and Syrian invasion. Israel also repelled Jordan, once it declared war, opened fire upon Jerusalem, and mobilized fighter planes.

Nevertheless, Syria’s air force continued to bomb Israel’s oil refineries in Haifa. They fired artillery against Israeli troops in the Eastern Galilee, and attacked villages in the Huleh Valley beneath the Golan Heights.

During a six-day period of combat, Israel defeated the aggressors. Israel took control of the Sinai Desert, the Golan Heights, Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Israel could have legally retained new territory just as Poland retained Wroclaw. Placing a priority upon peace with its neighbors, however, Israel decided merely “to administer” the territories until state-by-state final settlements were achieved.

  1. Did Israel ever attempt to return the Golan Heights to Syria in Exchange for Peace?

On June 19, 1967, the Israeli Cabinet unanimously voted to hand back the entire Sinai to Egypt and all of the Golan Heights to Syria in return for peace and demilitarization.

Yet on September 1, the Arab League met at Khartoum and responded with its infamous “3 No’s”: “no peace, no negotiations, no recognition of Israel.” Israel remained in pursuit of acceptance by her neighbors; thus, Israel accepted UN Resolution 242, calling upon The Jewish State to relinquish most [but not all] “territory” acquired in June, 1967, if it was in exchange for peace treaties within “defensible borders,” to be negotiated with her Arab neighbors.

In peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, Israel relinquished the Sinai Desert to Egypt [more than 80% of all the land acquired in June 1967], as well as a slither of turf on the border between Israelis and the Jordanians.

Israel also accepted President Bill Clinton’s Oslo Accord proposal for a Palestinian State. This “Framework” would have turned Gaza plus 90+% of the West Bank over to the Palestinian Authority, along with a Palestinian national presence in Jerusalem. It was rejected by Yasir Arafat.

On the Syrian front, President Bill Clinton’s negotiating team sought to arrange “Land For Peace.” The United States’ lead negotiator, Dennis Ross, affirmed that in the mid-1990s, Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to relinquish all Golan Heights territory to accord with the international border established in 1923.

Ross assumed that a peace agreement was imminent. To his dismay, Ross recollected that, “[Syrian President] Assad was dismissive—for the first time in the history of the process, he stated that [in addition to the Golan Heights] ‘the [Sea of Galilee] has always been our [Syrian] lake; it was never theirs [Israeli].’” Once Assad demanded Syria be given a portion of the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s primary source of water, negotiations collapsed.

Nearly 10 years later, as reported on June 9, 2007, by The Telegraph [UK], an Israeli Prime Minister once again offered the Golan to Assad in exchange for peace with security. Ehud Olmert reached out to Syria only after American President George W. Bush gave the green light in an hour-long conversation.

In a secret communique, Olmert’s offer of the entire Golan required that Syria dissolve its alliances with Iran, Hezbollah, and with Palestinian militant factions who maintain headquarters in Damascus.

“I am your partner for making peace between our countries,” Olmert told Damascus through German and Turkish mediators, Israel’s Yediot Ahronot reported, “I know that a peace agreement with Syria requires me to return the Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty. I am willing to fulfill my part in this deal.”

Assad wanted unilateral and unconditional Israeli withdrawal. He could not agree to any concessions whatsoever in the interest of peace and security. The bloody aftermath of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza has disproven the effectiveness of this approach.

Since the chaos of the Syrian civil war in 2011, no further Israeli offers have been possible. Assad has been ruthless, using poison gas against his own people. He has murdered hundreds of thousands of Syrians and uprooted millions.

Assad also has lost much of his sovereignty to Russia, to Hezbollah, and especially to Iran. No longer can a credible Israeli leader contemplate placing the strategic Golan into the hands of any of these overtly hostile actors. Notably, Iran openly pledges to bring about Israel’s violent destruction.

In the interest of regional stability as well as Israel’s security against Assad, Iran, Hezbollah, ISIS, Al Qaeda and Palestinian terror groups renewed efforts at negotiations are futile. Israeli sovereignty over the Golan is the only viable diplomatic alternative.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”
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