The peculiar and contradictory history of the US bill to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights

This document has nothing to do with international law. It is about passing legislation to profit from an administration that has undermined all past principles of Arab-Israeli negotiations

Israeli soldiers stand in an open area near Mount Bental, an observation post in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights that overlooks the Syrian side of the Quneitra crossing, Israel January 21, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
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A bill is now pending in the US Senate for the United States to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights. Not surprisingly, what we have is a poorly argued, evasive and partisan document.

This peculiar nature of the bill comes from its desire to recognise Israeli sovereignty, even as it argues for this by recalling a US statement that does not quite affirm this intention. It mentions that in 1975 president Gerald Ford had committed to giving “great weight to Israel’s position that any peace agreement with Syria must be predicated on Israel remaining on the Golan Heights”.

In fact, Ford was ambiguous. He supported “that a just and lasting peace … must be acceptable to both [Israel and Syria]”, adding that if the US took a final stance on the Golan borders, it would give “great weight” to Israel’s remaining, without defining what this meant. He didn’t take a stance on borders because he left that to the parties, though no Israeli presence could ever be “acceptable” to Syria. Nor did Ford make such a presence a condition for negotiations.

The Senate bill underlines that the George HW Bush administration had repeated Ford’s assurance to Israel before the Madrid conference of October 1991. What it doesn’t say is that subsequent negotiations between Syria and Israel did not take place on the grounds that Israel would remain in the Golan. Indeed, they foundered when Syrian president Hafez Al Assad thought he was offered less than full Syrian sovereignty over the entire Golan based on the June 4, 1967 lines.

The Bush administration had invited Arabs and Israelis to the Madrid peace conference based on Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. Resolution 242, in its preamble, affirms the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”, which has long been the US position. After Israel annexed the Golan in 1981, the UN Security Council, in Resolution 497, unanimously characterised the move as “null and void”, demanding that Israel “rescind” its decision.

Those seeking US recognition of Israeli sovereignty have also argued that Israel has a right to annex the Golan because it was captured in a defensive war. Given that the 1967 war began with an Israeli pre-emptive attack, that argument seems ludicrous. Even the notion that Egypt intended to attack Israel and, therefore, had to be viewed as the aggressor is highly questionable.

Security has become a flexible concept, carrying us away from international law to a place where it can be used to justify defensive expansionism

Egypt's president Gamal Abdel Nasser did, indeed, close the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping in May 1967 and later asked a United Nations force to withdraw from the Sinai. However, these moves were mainly destined to show solidarity with Syria, which Israel had attacked in April, shooting down several aircraft.

However, just before the 1967 war, Nasser had told the US envoy Robert Anderson that he did not want war with Israel, and agreed to send the Egyptian vice president Zakaria Mohieddin to Washington to discuss a solution. Coming soon after Egypt’s military debacle in Yemen, the Egyptian leader also knew that his country stood little chance in a conflict with Israel.

Yet the Israelis saw an opening and took it. As Patrick Tyler has written in his book Fortress Israel, Israel's prime minister at the time, Levi Eshkol, tried to push back against the generals in his cabinet calling for war. He was unable to resist the pressure and Israel attacked Egypt, claiming Egypt was about to strike Israel. This view is shared by Israeli historians Tom Segev and Avi Shlaim.

Even if one accepted the fallacy that Egypt started the war, the UN has never agreed that this granted Israel a right to annex the Golan, as Resolution 242 underlines. However, the most bizarre aspect of the Senate bill is its assumption that current security risks from Iran give Israel a right to secure permanent sovereignty over the Golan. Since Israel already controls the territory, it’s never explained how recognising Israeli sovereignty would make a difference.

An answer was provided by a defender of recognition, the former US National Security Council official Michael Doran. He told Carnegie's Middle East blog Diwan that "the risk of returning the Golan to Syria is not simply a function of the Assad regime's alliance with Iran. By its very nature, Syria is an unstable polity. Even if a regime favourable to the United States and to regional stability were one day to emerge in Damascus, we could never count on it to survive."

Such a view implies that any talk of a peace settlement is meaningless. Worse, genuine security for Israel can only come by seizing the land of “unstable” neighbouring countries, which might one day also threaten Israeli security. Security thus becomes a flexible concept, carrying us away from international law to a place where it can be used to justify defensive expansionism.

What is taking place has nothing to do with Israeli security or international law anyway. Rather, it is about passing legislation to profit from a Trump administration that has undermined all past principles of Arab-Israeli negotiations to Israel’s advantage. Israel is secure and controls the Golan. Formal US recognition of Israeli sovereignty will not add to that in any way. The Senate bill is, simply, a cynical validation of land theft.

Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut