The Golan Heights and the Syrian-Israeli Negotiations

, May 22, 2008

Vol. 8, No.1    May 22, 2008

 

  • Israeli negotiators will quickly discover three core areas in their discussions with the Syrians that they will not resolve easily: delineation of an agreed boundary, security arrangements, and the Syrian-Iranian alliance.
  • Just prior to the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Syria deployed 1,400 tanks along the border against a total Israeli force of 177 tanks (a force ratio of 8 to 1 in favor of Syria). Should Syria’s considerable missile forces be used to delay Israel’s reserve mobilization, then the importance of the Golan terrain will increase as Israel’s small standing army will have to fight for longer without reserve reinforcement.
  • When Israel reached its Treaty of Peace with Egypt in 1979, it agreed to fully withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula to the international border. Syria illegally occupied Israeli territories during the 1950s that were within Israel’s international borders: the southern demilitarized zone at al-Hamma, the Banias area, and the strip of coastal territory along the northeast shoreline of the Sea of Galilee.
  • If Israel were to agree to the June 4, 1967, line, as Syria demands, it would be rewarding Syrian aggression. Moreover, it could compromise Israel’s control of its largest fresh water reservoir. Israel should not have to be arguing with the Syrians over the question of whether a future Israeli-Syrian boundary should correspond to the June 4, 1967, line or to the older international border, for neither of these lines is defensible.
  • The U.S. has given Israel repeated diplomatic assurances in the past that Israel will not have to come down from the Golan Heights, beginning with a September 1, 1975, letter from President Gerald Ford to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It was renewed prior to the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference by Secretary of State James Baker. During the Clinton administration, Secretary of State Warren Christopher renewed the Ford commitment in a letter dated September 19, 1996.
  • Even if, by prior agreement with Tehran, the Syrians took steps that appeared to be downgrading relations, Israel’s concession of the Golan Heights would be irreversible, while the political orientation of states in the Middle East is notoriously changeable. It would be a cardinal error for Israel to put into jeopardy its own security by agreeing to come down from the Golan Heights.

 

Despite advances in military technology, the Golan Heights remains a vital strategic asset for the defense of the State of Israel. True, this week Israel and Syria have re-opened their diplomatic dialogue after a hiatus of eight years. But negotiators will soon find that there are three clusters of issues that they will not resolve easily: delineation of an agreed boundary, security arrangements, and the Syrian-Iranian alliance. And to a large extent, these issues have become even more difficult since negotiations were held back in the 1990s.

 

Israel’s First Line of Defense

Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six-Day War, after years in which the Syrian armed forces positioned there pounded Israel’s farms and towns below with artillery attacks. In the western Golan, there are a series of steep cliffs reaching a height of 500 meters that dominate the Sea of Galilee, which Syria exploited to attack Israel from 1949 to 1967.  Eastward, the Golan plateau continues to rise to a maximal height of 1,200 meters above sea-level – at Har Avital – close to the Syrian border. This provides Israel’s numerically inferior standing army a clear topographical advantage against the masses of Syrian armor that are deployed in the plain below – stretching back to Damascus, Syria’s capital – until Israeli reserve forces arrive.

Just prior to the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Syria deployed 1,400 tanks in this area against a total Israeli force of 177 tanks (a force ratio of 8 to 1 in favor of Syria).  In the early 1990s, it was estimated that Syria generally deployed a standing force of five to six divisions in this area against an Israeli force of one division.1

It is incorrectly assumed that with the proliferation of ballistic missiles, the initial terrain conditions of conventional warfare are less important. In fact, should Syria’s considerable rocket and missile forces be used to delay Israel’s reserve mobilization, then the importance of the Golan terrain will increase as Israel’s small standing army will have to fight for more extended periods of time without reserve reinforcement. Whether the Israeli Air Force can supply close air support during this critical period will depend on how preoccupied it becomes with suppressing Syrian ballistic missile attacks against Israeli cities. In short, the Golan Heights remains an essential strategic asset for Israel’s defense.

Israeli negotiators will quickly discover three core areas in their discussions with the Syrians over which there has been considerable Israeli-Syrian disagreement in the past.

 

1.  Delineating an Agreed Boundary: Implications for the Sea of Galilee

The basis of Syrian-Israeli negotiations will be the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference invitation that included UN Security Council Resolution 242 from November 22, 1967. Resolution 242 called for the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” By not requiring a withdrawal from “all the territories” Israel captured, the resolution left open the possibility that the future border between Israel and Syria will be negotiated as part of the termination of ­­­­­­­belligerency and establishment of peace between the two countries.

When Israel reached its Treaty of Peace with Egypt in 1979, it agreed to fully withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula to the international border between the two countries.  If Syria argues that it too is entitled to the pre-1967 lines, there is a fundamental problem, for Syria itself illegally occupied Israeli territories during the 1950s that were within Israel’s international borders: the southern demilitarized zone at al-Hamma, the Banias area, and the strip of coastal territory along the northeast shoreline of the Sea of Galilee.

If Israel were to agree to the June 4, 1967, line, it would essentially be rewarding Syrian aggression from the 1950s. But if it offers the international border between Israel and Syria, that dates back to 1923 during the Mandatory period, then the Syrians would be obtaining less than the Egyptians. Moreover, after Syria encroached on Israel’s coastal strip in the 1950s along the northern shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, it proclaimed at that time a 250-meter belt of the lake as Syrian territorial waters. Damascus even denied Israel fishing rights in this part of the Sea of Galilee.2 Thus, an Israeli agreement to the June 4, 1967, line can compromise Israel’s control of its largest fresh water reservoir.

In reality, Israel should not have to be arguing with the Syrians over the question of whether a future Israeli-Syrian boundary should correspond to the June 4, 1967, line or to the older international border, for neither of these lines is defensible. Moreover, the U.S. has given Israel diplomatic assurances in the past that Israel will not have to come down from the Golan Heights. On September 1, 1975, President Gerald Ford wrote to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin: “The U.S. has not developed a final position on the borders. Should it do so, it will give great weight to Israel’s position that any peace agreement with Syria be predicated on Israel’s remaining on the Golan Heights.”

The Ford letter might be thought to be a subject of interest to diplomatic historians alone. However, prior to the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, Secretary of State James Baker renewed the U.S. commitment on the Golan to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir on October 18, 1991.  During the Clinton administration, Secretary of State Warren Christopher also renewed the Ford commitment in a letter dated September 19, 1996, to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.3  Christopher, moreover, added in his letter that whatever conditional statements Israel might have made during past negotiations about the Golan Heights (the reference was to the “Rabin Deposit”) could not be considered as a legally binding commitment.4 Israeli is thus still in a strong position to insist on a final boundary that reflects its security interests and is not bound to the negotiating record from past diplomatic contacts.

 

2.  The Limits of Demilitarization and Security Arrangements

The fundamental security problems between Israel and Syria – the asymmetry of their standing conventional armies – has been a problem Israel once faced with Egypt. But when Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula, it compensated for its loss of control of the Sinai with “security arrangements” that fundamentally restricted Egyptian forces through demilitarized areas and limited forces zones that were a part of their Treaty of Peace.

But while these “security arrangements” were instituted in the area of Sinai, which is roughly 220 kilometers wide, the territory of the Golan Heights is largely only 25 kilometers wide and is just 12 kilometers wide at its narrowest point. In order to create sufficient security for Israel, it is necessary to institute force limitations on the Syrian Army beyond the Golan Heights, well into southern Syria.5 Given the proximity of Damascus to the Golan Heights, it is likely that Israel’s security needs for demilitarized zones will require Syria to pull back its armored forces behind its own capital.

This problem is exacerbated by Syria’s massive acquisition of ballistic missiles and rockets, especially after the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Israel must seek to place limitations on these missile forces and on their location close to the Israeli border. Syria will have to make hard choices regarding what are its paramount interests and the extent of the concessions it will have to make: will Syria be willing to accept intrusive security restrictions near its capital or will it prefer to leave the territorial status-quo in place?

 

3.  Neutralizing the Syrian-Iranian Alliance

In Israeli diplomatic circles, the main demand that is voiced today concerning the renewed negotiations on the Syrian-Israeli track is the separation of Syria from its alliance with Iran and from what President George W. Bush called “the Axis of Evil.” But is it reasonable to assume that Syria, indeed, will be willing to distance itself from its ally in Tehran?

The Syrian-Iranian alliance was in fact born in 1980 and had nothing to do with Israel: at the time, it resulted from the Iran-Iraq War and the antipathy of both countries to the regime of Saddam Hussein. Today, the Syrian-Iranian alliance is based on other Syrian interests, as well, that have little to do with Syrian-Israeli relations.

For example, a clear priority for Syria’s foreign policy is its hegemonic position in Lebanon. The main vehicle for the Syrians to dominate Lebanon is their close alliance with Hizbullah, which, as was recently proven, is the strongest faction in Lebanon. Were Syria to cut itself off from Iran, it would lose its special relationship with Hizbullah, which is funded and controlled by Tehran. As a result, Syria’s control over Lebanon would diminish and the anti-Syrian coalition of Sunni Muslims, Druze, and Christians would become predominant.

Thus, it is extremely unlikely that Syria would halt its strategic ties with Iran and adopt a pro-Western orientation instead. Moreover, even if, by prior agreement with Tehran, the Syrians would take steps that appeared as though they were downgrading their relations, it is important to realize how temporary such changes might be. While Israel’s concession of the Golan Heights would be irreversible, the political orientation of states in the Middle East is notoriously changeable. An Israeli negotiator would be hard-pressed to hammer out an agreement that would provide any permanence to a break between Damascus and Tehran.

There are many other daunting subjects that negotiations will face. Israel, for example, expects “full normalization” of relations with Syria, while Syrian spokesmen carefully used the term “normal relations” for the quality of their future ties to the Jewish state. “Normalization” implies the kind of relations enjoyed today by former adversaries like France and Germany in the context of the European Union. “Normal relations” is an alternative term that suggests the most minimal of ties; it provides a kind of formalization of the idea of a “cold peace.”

Given these fundamental differences, there are serious risks emanating from the current effort of Israel and Syria to re-engage diplomatically. If expectations are raised that a peace agreement is imminent, but no treaty is finally concluded, then the political environment after a failed negotiation can be full of real escalatory potential.

For Israel it is particularly critical to take into account the interests of its American ally. On April 28, 2008, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, slammed the Syrians for their destabilizing role in Iraq. He disclosed that 90 percent of foreign fighters in Iraq came across the Syrian-Iraqi border. Moreover, al-Qaeda’s “facilitators” in Iraq “operated inside Syria.”6

Entering a negotiation when such broad differences of substance exist is highly problematic. Given the continuing strategic importance of the Golan Heights, it would be a cardinal error for Israel to put into jeopardy its own security by agreeing to come down from this dominant terrain. Finally, such an initiative could also jeopardize Israel’s ties with its most important ally, the United States.

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Notes

1. Aryeh Shalev, Israel and Syria: Peace and Security on the Golan (in Hebrew) (Tel Aviv: Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, 1993), p. 124.

2. Meron Medzini (ed.), Israel’s Foreign Relations – Selected Documents, 1947-1974 (Jerusalem: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1976), p. 271.

3. Eli Kamir, “The Secret Negotiations Between Netanyahu and Assad,” Ma’ariv, December 31, 1999.

4. Itamar Rabinovich, The Brink of Peace: The Israeli-Syrian Negotiations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), pp. 3-13. The “Rabin Deposit” was a theoretical exercise during which the U.S. was told that if Israeli requirements were met for security arrangements, sequence of implementation, and normalization, then Rabin was willing to withdraw from the Golan. The Clinton administration was supposed to put this conditional statement in their pocket and take it out if Syria met Israel’s other conditions.

5. In past negotiations these zones of demilitarization were call “the relevant areas,” and Israel made it clear they would need sufficient depth for them to provide security.  See Uri Sagie, “The United States and the Israeli-Syrian Dialogue,” The Israeli-Syrian Dialogue: A One-Way Ticket to Peace?  (Houston, TX: Baker Institute, October 1999), Chapter 3.

6. “U.S. Envoy Slams Iran’s Alleged Destabilizing Role in Iraq,” AFP, April 28, 2008, http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5g6gHdkw33tAceBTnP8yQB3lg2Ybw.

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Dr. Dore Gold, Israel’s ambassador to the UN in 1997-99, is President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and author of Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism (Washington: Regnery, 2003) and The Fight for Jerusalem: Radical Islam, the West, and the Future of the Holy City (Regnery, 2007).

About Dore Gold

The writer, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN, is president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and serves as an external advisor to the office of the Prime Minister of Israel. He is the author of the best-selling books: The Fight for Jerusalem: Radical Islam, the West, and the Future of the Holy City (Regnery, 2007), and The Rise of Nuclear Iran: How Tehran Defies the West (Regnery, 2009).