No reasonable person would ask the Israelis to give the Golan Heights to the Syrian mass murderer Assad. It would be suicidal to hand the high ground overlooking Israeli towns and villages to a madman who would use it to target Israelis civilians with chemical barrel bombs, as Assad has done to his own citizens. No country has ever returned a battleship captured in a defensive war to an enemy sworn to its destruction. In addition, the Golan Heights is a big battleship that would be used to attack Israel.
The Golan Heights is not like the West Bank, which has a large population of civilians who regard themselves as occupied or displaced. The civilians who lived in the Golan Heights before Israel entered it on the last day of the Six-Day War were largely Druze. Whoever remained there are far better off living in Israel than in Syria. Since Assad began his campaign of murder, many Golan Druze have already become Israeli citizens. As one of the 25,000 Arab Druze stated in a recent LA Times article, “No doubt that Druze and Israelis in the Golan enjoy a level of safety and security that can’t be compared to life on the other side… Each night at dinner, he says he reminds his children that while they are well fed, there are children in Syria with nothing to eat.”
So, Israel’s control of the Golan Heights is not about people; it is largely about military advantage. No country in history has ever given back to a sworn enemy, militarily essential territory that has been captured in a defensive war.
The issue is not whether Israel should give back the Golan Heights now. Virtually everyone agrees it should not. Moreover, it will not. No Prime Minister of Israel, no matter how far to the left, would ever think of ceding the Golan Heights to Assad. The area is high ground that the Syrians used to shoot down onto the Israeli farmers laboring in the valley: it was a shooting gallery.
Israel will remain in control of the Golan Heights for the foreseeable future. The only issue is whether Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights should be recognized by the United States and other countries. It should, for several important reasons.
The reality on the ground is that Israel will never give up the Golan Heights to Syria, unless it is part of a negotiated resolution with a peaceful, democratic Syria that has agreed to end all belligerency and recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. This is unlikely to happen anytime in the foreseeable future. If it were to happen, there would be nothing to stop Israel from ceding the annexed Golan Heights to Syria as part of an enduring peace deal. There is therefore no real harm in Israel’s decision to annex it and the United States’ decision to recognize that annexation. Furthermore, the decision to annex and recognize the annexation removes the Golan Heights from the status of occupied territory and recognizes the status quo as both de facto and de jure realities.
I had the opportunity to discuss this issue with President Donald J. Trump two weeks before he announced his decision. I provided him with the battleship analogy, which he seemed to appreciate. I told him that I thought the Sunni Arab world might complain, but that they really do not care about the Golan, which has no religious significance to Islam. There were in fact, some minor protests, but nothing of significance.
Predictably, the European Union opposed the U.S. recognition of the annexation. But it provided no compelling argument, beyond its usual demand that the status quo not be changed. Israel’s control over the Golan Heights has been the status quo for more than half a century; and Israel’s legitimate need to control the heights has only increased over time, with war in Syria, and the presence of Iranian and Hezbollah military in close proximity. Would the European Union demand that Israel now hand over the Golan Heights to Assad? Has any European country ever handed over high ground, captured in a defensive war, to a sworn enemy?
Recall that at the end of the first and second world wars, European countries made territorial adjustments to help preserve the peace. Why should the European Union subject Israel to a double standard it has never demanded of itself? The answer is clear: The European Union has always acted hypocritically when it comes to Israel, and this is no exception.
So three cheers for President Trump for doing the right thing. I will continue to criticize him if and when he does the wrong thing — such as separating families at the U.S.’s southern border.
That is what bipartisan means: praising the President I voted against when he does the right thing, and criticizing presidents I voted for (such as Barack Obama) when they do the wrong thing (such as abstaining on the Security Council Resolution declaring Jewish holy places to be occupied territory).
Israel’s continuing control over the Golan Heights increases the chance for peace and decreases the chances that Syria, Iran and/or Hezbollah will be able to use this high ground as a launching pad against Israelis. That is good news for the world, for the United States and for Israel.
Alan M. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law Emeritus at Harvard Law School and author of The Case against the Democratic House Impeaching Trump (Hot Books, January 2, 2019), and a Distinguished Senior Fellow of Gatestone Institute.