Photo: A roadside landmark in the Golan Heights. Photo credit: Dmitriy Feldman Svarshik

Essay: Heightened Defense

The Jewish News
Robert Sklar

Robert Sklar

Israeli control of the Golan yields a broader benefit.

It’s a ridge for the ages, a bulwark against Islamist tyranny from the north and a vista providing sweeping views of upper Israel.

Arguably, the existence of Israel, America’s staunchest Middle East friend, hinges in part on Israeli control of the Golan Heights. The highlands are more militarily strategic than ever given Iran’s strengthened presence in Lebanon and Syria.

Through successive administrations, the U.S. has viewed the Jewish state as custodian of the Golan with no diplomatic covenant to it. Reports indicate the White House, in response to changing times “on the ground,” is contemplating recognition of Jerusalem’s Golan sovereignty. The net effect: Products manufactured or grown on the Golan would be considered “made in Israel” by the U.S., not in Israeli-occupied Syrian territory.

Such American recognition would have the potential to spur wider international support for Israel’s self-demarcated northern border.

The rocky plateau not only enables Israel to buffer itself above the Sea of Galilee from Iran-sponsored Hezbollah Shiite terrorists amassed in Lebanon, but also from Syria-based Sunni jihadists sworn to Islamic State and Al Qaida-linked Al Nusra Front. Hezbollah is a missile-armed ally of Bashar Assad, giving the maniacal Syrian president a caliber of military might that can’t be ignored.

Taking Charge

The Golani Brigade, integral to Israel’s 1948 War for Independence, helped the Jewish state seize most of the Golan from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967. In that war, Israel pre-emptively thwarted an impending Arab attack. When Syria controlled the Golan, Syrian snipers could take aim at Galilean farmers or kibbutz dwellers below.

In 1974, following the Yom Kippur War of 1973, an Israeli-Syrian ceasefire effectively left most of the Golan under Israeli control.

In 1981, Israel unilaterally extended civilian law to its area of the Golan, a sort of annexation despite the international community branding the area Israeli-occupied Syrian territory subject to diplomatic negotiation. Israeli and U.N. peacekeeping forces continue to patrol the mountainside.

While Syria, seven years into a brutal civil war, vows to retake the Golan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bristles at the suggestion Israel should “come down” from the Heights. The Golan must never become a diplomatic pawn. The regional neighborhood is starkly different from what it was in the 1990s when the Oslo Accords imagined the Golan’s possible return to Syria as part of a land-for-peace pact between Israel and the Arab world.

As Syria’s war between Sunni rebels and Assad loyalists builds in the Syrian Golan Heights, Israel has had to reinforce its northern border. Displaced Syrians along that border continue to benefit from Israel’s humanitarian heart.

Expansive Terrain

The Golan ranges from Lebanon eastward to Syria and Jordan, all Arab nations. The first two breed Zionist-haters dedicated to destroying Israel. Jordan and Israel have a peace treaty only as durable as King Abdullah II.

Regional volatility has emboldened Shiite Iran from Lebanon to Syria — near Israel. Notably, Iran funds Hamas, a terrorist arch enemy of Israel.

Given disarray among Palestinian leadership, it’s remote that U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan alone could prompt renewed talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.  A U.S.-brokered peace proposal buoyed by Sunni Arab leaders would have a better chance of accomplishing that.

Lay Of The Land

About 20,000 Jews and about the same number of Druze (Arabs largely loyal to Syria) live in the Golan. The Golan is a military, economic and housing priority for all of Israel.

Standing atop the Golan reinforces what’s at stake.

The Israeli side is radiant and fertile, a panorama of lush vegetation, trees, vineyards and orchards. The bounty includes wine, olives, goat cheese, chocolate, black basalt and a vital water catchment. There’s even a ski resort.

The Syrian side, dreary and daunting, reveals Damascus, the Russia-aligned Syrian capital 40 miles away.

In a 2016 Washington Post interview, Prime Minister Netanyahu captured the Golan’s legacy. “For the 19 years that the Golan was under Syrian occupation, it served as a place for bunkers, barbed wires, mines and aggression — it was used for war,” he said. In the ensuing years under Israeli control, he said, the Golan has been used for “agriculture, tourism, economic, initiatives, building” — peaceful pursuits.

“Danger” signs on the Golan mark mines that Israel planted over the years to deter Syrian attacks. The signs also identify Syrian mines from when Syria held sway over the elevation.

In a June 17 post on “The Ettinger Report,” former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Yoram Ettinger, an Israel-
based demographer and political consultant, insisted an Israeli retreat from the Golan “would severely injure Israel’s posture of deterrence, reducing its capabilities to extend the strategic hand of the U.S., thus making Syria dramatically more explosive.”

Syria’s “imperialistic aspirations and potential explosive regional impact under an Alawite or a Sunni regime,” Ettinger continued, “transcend the narrow context of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

“They are a derivative of the unique role played by Syria, the home of the early caliphs in Islamic history,” he explained. “Therefore, the current Syrian powder keg has drawn an unprecedented number of Islamic terror organizations and jihad-driven fighters/terrorists from the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia.”

Israel’s seceding from the Golan, Ettinger added, would “inflame Damascus’ long-term historical aspirations to solidify control of Syria, reclaim Greater Syria, including Jordan, Lebanon and Israel, and dominate the Arab world, which entails the toppling of all pro-U.S. Arab regimes.”

Ettinger makes a strong case that the Golan Heights enables Israel to secure its tenuous northern border.

Any scenario built with timbers of U.S. and Israel interests, Mideast reality and international sentiment demands that Israel sustain its grip on the Golan.

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