Straddling the divide between the chaos in Syria and the calm of the Galilee in northern Israel is a pastoral plateau known as the Golan Heights. Famous for its world-class vineyards, wandering cattle, and lush nature trails, the Golan has served as the disputed frontier between the two long-time adversaries since the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967.
This small but strategic piece of land — negligible in size next to the vast territory of the entire Middle East — has been a point of contention on the Levant for over four decades. Claimed by Damascus but administered by Jerusalem since its annexation in 1981, the Golan is land in limbo.
The international community has refused to recognize Israel's control of the Golan for over 45 years. Condemned by United Nations Security Council Resolution 497, Israel's actions are officially considered "null and void and without international legal effect." Even the United States refuses to acknowledge Israel's position, with every president since Gerald Ford preferring to subject the final status of the Golan Heights to negotiations and an assumed Israeli withdrawal. U.S. attempts to broker a peace deal between Syria and Israel over the past two decades have ended in failure due to intractable differences.
Today, the situation in the Middle East is vastly different than it was just a few years ago, and the civil war occurring just beyond the Golan is grim. As rebel movements clash with government loyalists under the command of President Bashar Assad, thousands of civilians have lost their lives and countless more have been injured and wounded. Recent intelligence reports estimate that Mr. Assad is transporting weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, forcing Israel to go on high alert. According to news reports, Israel may have acted as recently as last week with a precision strike in southern Syria.
Just as Israel faces a changing security situation from Syria, the international community is rapidly reevaluating its longstanding policies in the Middle East. The U.S., which once viewed Mr. Assad as a potential reformer, has had all its preconceived notions wiped out in the wake of the uprisings throughout the Arab world. Policymakers now have to come to grips with a new reality not only in Syria, but also in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere. With Syria, however, the U.S. has a window of opportunity to make the Golan into a recognized safe haven for Arabs and Jews while strengthening joint American and Israeli interests in the region.
The Golan is currently home to approximately 20,000 self-identifying Syrian Arabs, mostly Druze, who live in safety and security. Since 1967, this community has maintained distinctive ties to Syria, yet it continues to live peacefully under Israeli governance. As war rages nearby, the Golan remains a home for both Arabs and Jews that is insulated from conflict, be it with Syria, Lebanon, or the Palestinians. With this in mind, it is time for the United States to take the bold initiative of recognizing Israeli jurisdiction over the Golan Heights.
Under Israel's control, the Golan has experienced exceptional growth in the fields of agriculture, industry and tourism. Over 40 towns and villages dot this small piece of land where Arabs and Jews live largely harmoniously. Israel's devotion to improving the Golan has seen standards of living rise for everyone while giving Israel a strategic foothold that benefits the entirety of the country.
Before 1967, Syrian snipers shooting from above targeted villages and kibbutzim in the Galilee. Today, Israel can lay claim to defensible borders that ensure major population centers are protected from harm. For these reasons, the U.S. should lead the way in recognizing Israeli ownership of such a crucially important piece of land.
From the onset of Syria's civil war, the Syrian government has continually used the status of the Golan as a way in which to deflect attention at home and aboard away from its crimes. The issue of the Golan serves as a way to shift people's focus onto Israel, an easy scapegoat in the Arab world. The U.S. has an incentive in removing such a strategy from Syria's playbook, which only serves in prolonging this tragic conflict. By recognizing Israel's control of the Golan, the U.S. could strengthen its ally's hand while weakening the current Syrian government's legitimacy. Once the current government in Damascus is replaced, Israel will be in a solid position to re-launch peace negotiations if it so decides.
Although small in size, the Golan Heights plays a large role in the Israeli consciousness. A popular bumper sticker in Israel reads, "The nation is with the Golan." Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated, "The Golan will never be divided again, the Golan will never fall again, the Golan will remain in our hands," invoking a long legacy of Jewish and Israeli presence on the plateau. As the crisis in Syria intensifies, Israel's appreciation for the Golan will go beyond the sentimental to an actual real-time appreciation for the security it provides.
The time is ripe for the United States to show tangible support for its closest ally in the Middle East. The time is ripe for the United States to help maintain the Golan as an Israeli safe space for Arabs and Jews away from the brutal carnage of the nearby Syrian civil war. Now more than ever, it is time for the U.S. to recognize the Golan for what it is: Israeli.
Robert Pines, a Gaithersburg native, is a student in the School of International Service at American University. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun