The Golan Heights, internationally recognised as Syrian territory, were seized by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. The ostensible reason for this was that the Heights could be used to terrorise Israel, being mountains with Israeli plains below, and thus Israel was merely ensuring its security. However the State of Israel has long claimed the area as rightfully its own – the late film director Menahem Golan was originally surnamed Globus, but changed his surname in 1948, during the Israel War of Independence when Israelis were encouraged to adopt Hebrew names – rather like a German calling himself Alsace, or a Hungarian calling himself Zagreb.
In 1981, the Israeli parliament voted to annex two-thirds of the region. The United Nations has repeatedly stated that Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights is illegal, calling for them to be returned to Syria. However Israel is still holding on to them, citing the same security reasons, hoping that everyone who might disagree will be labelled anti-Semitic and thus excluded from debate.
The Golan is not merely an area of historic dispute – another idea Israel promotes in the global audience – but plays an increasingly important role in current affairs. As the WSJ has put it, “The Trump administration wants to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran in Syria, as reported earlier this month. For now, the success of such a move [driving a wedge] looks unlikely, despite the joint assessments by the Russians, Iranians, Assad officials and Hezbollah”.
The Golan are being used to drive that wedge by being included in a bargaining chip in any deal, offered as a strategic outpost in exchange for other favours. Some Israeli pundits are going as far as to suggest that the Iranians may be offered this outpost in a possible carve-up of Syria, or as a price Syria has to pay for the troops it is defeating to leave. It is also conceivable that Assad will regain control of the entire Syrian Golan.But in the meantime Israel has tight control over the Heights and will not back down. With Russia winning in Syria and Assad incrementally advancing on Golan, Israel is also using the Heights as a bargaining chip to get the best outcome for itself from this mess.
Help us and we give you a concession on the Golan, it is effectively saying. But it is unlikely to get what it wants for one simple reason: Israel is not prepared to debate the real reason why it wants the Heights, and will not be able to secure a successful outcome to negotiations without addressing this elephant in the room.
Your problem, our opportunity
The State of Israel continues to enjoy wide support from the US and the nations which happily persecuted Jews for centuries and now want to run away from that legacy. However, due to the way the Jewish homeland was created, plonked down amidst hostile countries whose own people were dispossessed in the process, it has always lived under perpetual threat of war, and as President Jimmy Carter found when he tried to make domestic political capital out of the Camp David Accords he had brokered, no one actually wants a “Middle East Peace Process” spoiling that perception.
If a region is always on the brink of war, you can play any game you like there, with arms and trade deals and training programmes offered to whoever you want, and them blame the regional countries for the consequences. The politics of the Lebanese Civil War were notoriously complicated, and Western governments made little attempt to understand them, but each chose a side for an array of contradictory reasons and then blamed the Lebanese themselves for using the arms they had sent them. Peace and war in the Middle East are governed by who is prepared to pay the most to stop another bastard claiming more of the oil, which by definition is a process which will always be governed by the importing consumer countries, principally the US. Once the Middle East was in the news because it was an outpost of such behaviour.
Great power interventions in other countries’ affairs were usually to prop up friendly governments, no matter how bad they were, rather than seek regime change, which is why the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia aroused the international anger they did. But now the opposite is true. The same US which gave the world the Peace Corps has taken it upon itself to remove governments it doesn’t like and force their countries into ever deeper dependency on their new saviour.
This only creates further conflict and instability, but this is now rejoiced in rather than condemned, the US having become what it has always mocked Middle East countries for being. The Golan Heights, a flashpoint for as long as Israel has existed, are no longer seen as a problem which is better solved. They are a means of prolonging conflict further to keep military programmes running, at a time when Trump wants to wind down such adventures and other countries want to take advantage of this to knock the US off its global perch.
If you can keep the Golan dispute going, with all sides accusing each other of illegality, you continue to have an excuse for keeping this behaviour as the international standard – which is why Golan is being traded over, and leaked back into the news when its issues have been there all the time.
You are thinking what we were thinking
Much of what is now going on in the Middle East is ascribed to the Arab Spring, the idea being that if such conflicts can be declared to be an intrinsic fault of the people living in that part of the world; they can still be presented [their reaction] as inevitable, spontaneous local uprisings. However VOA, Voice of America, was retooling its radio broadcasts for the Middle East as far back as 2001. A programme of replacing peace building with war making was set in motion long before the Arab Spring, which was merely a small part of this programme.
Foreign observers often ask why Italy has dozens of official institutes for the study of anti-Fascism but none for the study of Fascism, though the Italians who saw Fascism play out could tell you why. Yet few seem to have noticed that a lot of research has gone into 9/11, how that happened and what its consequences have been, but little or none into the general assumption of peace being desirable which prevailed beforehand, when warmongering politicians were pilloried by the public. Despite a longstanding policy of trying to scare people with the spectre of terrorism, which resulted in Americans refusing to take holidays in Europe because they assumed all the attractions would be closed to protect them from terrorists, before 9/11 terrorism was not used as an excuse for regime change.
It is now, because the planes flying into the Twin Towers changed the general assumption, though the voters didn’t even notice, most conveniently for a military trying to prevent itself being downsized by the Clinton and possible Gore Administrations. No one wants to study why the public assumption changed because it would lift the lid on how convenient 9/11 was, and how the general Western public were suddenly converted when they needed to be to a policy which had been planned all along.
Trump’s election promise to withdraw US troops from all these expensive foreign wars was one of the factors which won him the White House, but he has had to qualify this by continuing the war on terrorism by means of propaganda, his recent comments about a non-existent Muslim terror attack in Sweden being one example. As long as the Middle East is involved, the US can still do anything; fighting for control of the Golan Heights is the best way of keeping this acceptable in the eyes of the clueless pubic.
Hebrew and Yiddish
So politicians in power today, and others who do not want to be caught out, have every reason to use the Golan Heights as a negotiating point, as they are the key to maintaining their own positions and polices. Israel is playing the same game, but is hampered by doing it even less honestly. As in all such situations, the major powers have set an agenda the rest have to accept before they can sit at the table.
The agenda here is that the Golan Heights are a strategic asset whose ownership is now disputed because they belong to Syria and Syria is a rogue state, whose borders no one need respect. Israel should be able to take advantage of this by pressing its own claims even further, but its alarm over the possible handing over of the Heights to Iran or Russia, even in part, indicates that it is failing to do this effectively. This is not because Israel does not know how to negotiate.
It is because, like the other parties involved in the Syrian and broader Middle East conflicts, it knows that there are significant hydrocarbon resources under the Heights, possession of which would allow regional countries to change the regional picture for themselves. This is the main reason Israel wants to keep control of the Golan Heights, in an age when it has a big enough arsenal, and enough Western support, to remove anyone else from those mountains which are supposedly in a rogue state.
But a discussion about who should have hydrocarbon reserves is a completely different discussion to who should control a strategic physical feature. The US will not discuss the fact that most of its wars are about controlling oil and gas reserves, so it is not going to do so in relation to the Golan Heights. The Russian Federation has demonstrated that Russian gas is not going to be replaced with Qatari gas, which travels through Syria, meaning that any energy corridors will have to be achieved by negotiation, not brute force. But this would involve admitting that brute force has been used for this reason so far, another reason why the US will continue to insist that any discussion about a hydrocarbon-rich area is purely a political one, the resources are not part of the equation.
So Israel is hoist on its own petard: having always claimed it needs to control the Heights to protect itself, it cannot now introduce another reason for wanting them into the discussion, particularly one no one wants to talk about. In order to stop Russia and Assad’s advance in Syria the West needs support, but cannot offer Golan to Israel to get that support because Israel is on the same side and occupies the Heights anyway. It can only offer them to another prospective ally, or use them to try and turn an enemy into a friend, as it now being accused of doing to detach Iran from Russia.
This process simply confirms both the importance of the Heights and Israel’s ostensible reason for wanting them. The closer it theoretically gets to obtaining acceptance of its annexation of the Heights the further away it gets in reality. Kicking Israel off the Heights would provoke further conflict, but that is exactly what the great powers want, for their own domestic reasons, so it is looking increasingly likely that this is the outcome the recent increase in press interest is trying to achieve.
Rain, rain, never go away
Sooner or later the war in Syria will end. But the Golan Heights will still be an issue, as there is no easy solution to what to do with them. Given the change in the global political mindset, this is an outcome the West will rejoice in, rather than regarding as unfortunate. It would serve a lot of purposes to create equivalents of the Golan Heights in plenty of other places, which would likewise keep current policy alive and blame all its outcomes on the locals.
India, Pakistan and China are still in dispute over Kashmir. Pakistan is still seen with vague suspicion, but India and China are increasingly sought-after economic and political partners, despite all the rhetoric about stopping Chinese interference in Western currency markets. Who is entitled to which bit of Kashmir is a local issue we hear little about at international level, but that could change rapidly if projects such as the New Silk Road go ahead.
Furthermore, the three countries are involved in a nuclear arms race. How long will it be before the world’s press takes more notice of Kashmir, presenting it as an opportunity to further Western interests rather than a problem which needs to be solved? No one will know what to do about Kashmir any more than they know what to do about the Golan Heights, but that will be its attraction for those who want to take advantage of the situation in perpetuity.
In these circumstances Russia could call America’s bluff by reclaiming sovereignty over Alaska. This would show that such behaviour is only considered acceptable if it happens somewhere else. But whatever the outcome in Syria, Gaza or the other Middle East conflicts the only solution will be one in which no one wins, and few in the centres of global power will care because that will keep the public from realising what they are doing for that much longer.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.