by Jerome Slater
Benjamin Netanyahu, now supported by Donald Trump, has recently claimed that Israel has the right to permanently hold the Golan Heights. “It belongs to us,” he said, because “we won it in a just war of self-defense.” International law, he and the Trump administration assert, allows states to permanently retain territories that they acquired when resisting “wars of aggression.”
Neither Netanyahu nor Trump had previously been known for their fealty to international law. In any case, Israeli and American legal experts have almost unanimously dismissed their assertion, arguing that states cannot permanently seize another country’s territory, even in alleged or actual “defensive” wars.
International law aside, the premise that Israel seized the Golan Heights only in defense against Syrian aggression is quite unpersuasive. Israeli historians have shown that the Zionist movement in general and David Ben-Gurion in particular had long sought to establish a Jewish state in all of biblical Palestine, which in their view included not only the Golan Heights but other parts of southern Syria.
In the words of one historian, “Ben-Gurion’s territorial aims were large. He never tired of reminding his Arab listeners of the historical boundaries of Erez Israel…[which] he had advocated since 1918.” Ben-Gurion’s biographer wrote that Ben-Gurion’s private papers contain “abundant proof that during the first years following the establishment of the State of Israel, he continued to secretly plan the next stage, in which he would achieve his territorial ambitions.”
Following the 1948 war, Israel could have reached an overall political settlement with Syria. The moderate, pro-Western governments in power in Damascus during this period offered to end the Syrian conflict with Israel on the condition that Syria retain the Golan Heights, which gave it access to the Jordan River and Lake Tiberias, its only important water resource.
However, Ben-Gurion was not willing to let Syria share those waters and refused even to enter into negotiations. The next few years saw a number of Syrian-Israeli border clashes. For many years, Israeli historians, journalists, and even retired generals who participated in the conflicts have said that Israel initiated or deliberately provoked most of the clashes to gradually seize control of the contested areas. Indeed, in a startling 1976 interview, Moshe Dayan, the head of the Israeli army during that period, admitted that Israel instigated more than 80 percent of the clashes with the Syrians to create pretexts for seizing more territory and diverting the waters of the Jordan River away from Syria. When the Israeli interviewer then protested that Syria was a serious threat to Israel, Dayan responded: “Bullshit…Just drop it.”
In short, the Syrians had good reason to fear for the future of the Golan. During the months preceding the 1967 war, Prime Minister Eshkol and Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin warned that if Syria continued to support Palestinian guerrilla raids against Israel and shell Israeli positions below the Golan Heights, Israel might escalate well beyond the numerous air strikes that it was already conducting. On May 11, for example, Rabin publicly warned that if no other measures sufficed, “the moment is coming when we will march on Damascus to overthrow the Syrian Government.” Eshkol made similar threats.
On June 5, Israel attacked Egyptian forces on the Sinai Peninsula. Syria had a military alliance with Egypt that required mutual support. Nonetheless, Syria hoped it could stay out of the war, so its forces on the Golan Heights remained in defensive positions, and early in the war it accepted a UN ceasefire resolution. That did not stop Israel from deciding to use the opportunity to seize the Golan Heights. As a result, a few days after defeating the Egyptian army, the IDF attacked the Golan Heights, routing the Syrian defenders and seizing control of the area.
Six years later in the 1973 war, Egypt and Syria sought to regain their lost territories with a surprise but limited attack on Israeli forces in the Sinai and the Golan Heights. Both countries wanted no part of a major war with Israel. Rather, they sought a negotiated Israeli withdrawal from its 1967 conquests by demonstrating that Israel would pay a high price if it continued to refuse to do so.
In the first few days of the war, the Syrian army defeated the small Israeli forces in the Golan and was then in a position to continue its advance into northern Israel. However, under strict orders from Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, it stopped its advance well before Israeli reinforcements arrived and turned the tide in the Golan.
After the end of the 1973 war, Assad decided that Syria could not regain the Golan by military means and had to rely on a negotiated settlement of its conflict with Israel. In hopes of persuading the U.S. government to mediate the dispute, he announced his support of UN Security Council Resolution 242, unanimously adopted shortly after the 1967 War, which called for an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories—but only in the context of a political settlement that accepted “the right of every State in the area to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”
Consequently, from the mid-1970s through 2011, Hafez Assad and then his son and successor Bashar met secretly with Israeli negotiators, usually with active American participation, to see if a deal could be negotiated to return of the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a full peace treaty between the two states.
On several occasions, such a deal was at hand but was not reached. A succession of Israeli prime ministers was unwilling to make the essentially symbolic concession of allowing Syria to return to its southern Golan Heights foothold on Lake Tiberias (where it had been from the end of the 1948 until the 1967 war).
Israeli military security was not the issue. Most of Israel’s leading generals throughout this period supported such a peace deal with Syria. They recognized the declining importance of “holding the high ground” of the Golan Heights in the missile age and believed that removing Syria from the ranks of rejectionist Arab states would greatly enhance Israel’s security.
The Syrian civil war that began in 2011—as well as Bashar al-Assad’s alliance with Iran, which Israel today regards as its most dangerous enemy—has apparently ended, at least for now, the chances of a Israel-Syrian peace settlement. Before that, however, Israeli intransigence—as in so many other cases—resulted in a lost opportunity for peace with a major Arab adversary. This is no mere ancient history: the Golan Heights issue could once again precipitate war between Israel and Syria.
Jerome Slater is a University Research Scholar and emeritus professor of political science at SUNY/Buffalo, and a former Fulbright lecturer at Haifa University in Israel. He is the author of a number of works on the Arab-Israeli conflict, writing both for professional journals and the general media, including Dissent, National Interest Online, Tikkun, Huffington Post, and others. He is currently writing a history of the U.S., Israel, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict for the Oxford University press.