The US Should Recognize Israel’s Golan Heights

On March 12, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) announced that he, along with his colleague Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), will lobby the Trump administration to recognize the Golan Heights as sovereign Israeli territory “now and forever.”  In response, Martin Indyk, the former ambassador to Israel under President Clinton and special Middle East envoy under President Obama, stated that “like it or not, the Golan Heights are Syrian territory.”

Indyk is wrong.  The United States should adopt Graham’s view and recognize the Golan Heights as part of Israel.  Israel has a stronger claim to the Golan than Syria does.  The Golan is of essential strategic value to Israel and the free world.  And given increased threats, that value has only appreciated.

Israel’s Claim to the Golan Has Ancient Roots

Despite what Mr. Indyk says, the Jewish people’s claim to the Golan Heights predates the existence of any country called “Syria” as well as the Arab invasion and occupation of the Middle East beyond Arabia, beginning after the death of Mohammed in 632.  The region is featured in biblical history.  More recently, Gamla, whose ruins exist today, was a Judean city to which the Romans laid siege in 67 C.E. during the Great Revolt (also known as the First Jewish-Roman War) (66–73).  In this battle, Roman soldiers slaughtered 4,000 Jews, while another 5,000 perished, having “thrown themselves down” a ravine to their deaths in either an attempt to flee or a mass suicide (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, 4:1:9:80).  Following the defeat of the Jews by Rome after the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135, the Jews were expelled from Jerusalem and fled to Galilee and then to the Golan.  In fact, a coin found in Gamla contains the inscription “For the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Ein Keshatot, a synagogue with origins dating from the first century C.E., destroyed in an earthquake in 749 and rededicated in October 2018 after fifteen years of reconstruction, is on the Golan.  In the fourth century, 25 percent of the Land of Israel’s synagogues were distributed among three dozen communities in the Golan.  Towns included Devora, Kanaf, Yehudiya, Pik, and Ein Nashut.  In Devora, a decorative lintel was discovered bearing the inscription: “This is the beit midrash (house of study) of Rabbi Elazar Hakapar,” a major rabbi of the Talmud.

Israel’s Modern Claim to the Golan is Stronger than Syria’s 

The Jews regained sovereignty of the Golan when Israel gained control of two thirds of the Heights following Syria’s defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War.  (Israel later applied Israeli law to these territories in a de facto annexation in 1981.)  Syria had gained independence in 1945.  Before that, the Golan was part of the French Empire (1923–1945), jointly administered between the British and French Empires (1917–1923) and part of the (Turkish) Ottoman Empire for approximately 400 years preceding 1917.  So Syria had control of the Israeli-administered part of the Golan for 22 years (1945–1967), while Israel has had it for almost 52 years (1967 to the present).  Israel has a stronger claim to the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan, given that it has been Israeli longer than it has been Syrian.

The Great Strategic Value of the Golan…

Enemies of Israel, both past and present, have used the high elevation of the Golan Heights against her.  The ancient, pre-Arab Assyrian Empire literally looked down on the ancient northern kingdom of Israel from the Heights.  Assyria’s conquest of Israel in 722 BCE was launched from the Golan.

Fast-forward almost 2,700 years, and the Golan served similar aims for Israel’s enemies.  Prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, modern Syria, like ancient Assyria, held the high ground over Israel from the Heights.  (See cross-section and topographical maps on page 6 and 18, here).  This topography enabled Syria to shell Israeli towns with ease and sponsor Fatah fedayeen attacks from the Golan.  Since gaining parity in elevation with the Syrians following the Six-Day War, the Syria-Israel border has been largely quiet.  Given the many other conflicts in the Middle East, some of which I list here, that is a good thing for the world as well as Israel.

…Has Only Appreciated Given Current Threats  

Israel’s (and the free world’s) enemies have grown stronger, and closer in proximity to Israel since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War.  While the Islamic State’s power has been significantly reduced, it very well could re-emerge as a significant threat in Syria.  Regardless, Iran has gained significant power in Syria and stands to be a major military player in Syria in the foreseeable future.  Giving up the Golan would be foolish and would most likely result in it being controlled by forces hostile to Israel and the West.

One estimate places Iranian investment in the Syrian Civil War at over $30 billion, while another places it at over $100 billion.  The New York Times reported that as of February 2018, there are over thirty Iranian bases in Syria.  Foreign Policy calculated that of those bases, 11 are Iranian, 9 are run by Iranian-backed Shia militias, and 15 are Hezb’allah bases.  Further, as many as 20,000 Iran-sponsored foreign fighters are in Syria, with 6,000 of those fighters being from Hezb’allah, while the rest come from “Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and elsewhere.”

Some of the Iranian and Iranian-backed military bases are on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.  On March 13, the Israel Defense Forces revealed that Hezb’allah has set up a “covert force in the Syrian Golan Heights that is designed to act against Israel when given the order.”  Israel formally complained to the United Nations about this covert force a day later.  This force, dubbed the “Golan Project” by the IDF, is led by Hezb’allah commander Ali Mussa Daqduq, who was in jail in Iraq for five years for his role in an attack that killed five American soldiers.  Hezb’allah has been reportedly trying to set up a base in the Syrian Golan since at least 2013.

If Israel relinquishes the Golan, there is a greater risk that Israel will be fighting Hezb’allah in both Lebanon and the Heights.  On the other hand, Israel’s retention of its share of the Heights would serve as a strategic advantage in a future war.  Israel and the world need the Golan to balance against growing Iranian hegemony.


The thought of Israel giving its part of the Golan Heights back to Syria is ridiculous.  Syria is Israel’s historic archenemy and has supported and harbored jihadist groups such as Fatah, Hamas, Hezb’allah, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Continued Israeli sovereignty in the Golan is of great strategic value to Israel and the West, especially in these troubled times.  United States recognition of this sovereignty, hopefully followed by international recognition, would strengthen the security of Israel and the free world.

This article was originally published in the American Thinker.



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Steve works in the Washington, DC area.
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