This article originally appeared in Hebrew on the website of Israel’s Channel 12 on June 30, 2021.
There is no question that President Biden’s announcement that Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on his watch is a historic declaration by the commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces. But in recent weeks, observers of U.S.-Israel relations have been focused on another matter. Is the Biden administration continuing to support Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights that was formally recognized by President Donald Trump? The Biden team’s approach to the Golan Heights raises a number of questions about how U.S. policy is conducted and what Israel should do under such circumstances.
Israel captured the Golan Heights in 1967 as a result of the Six-Day War. According to UN Security Council Resolution 242, Israel was expected to withdraw from territories – but not all the territories – so that at the end of the day it would be left with “secure and recognized boundaries.” The most important U.S. statement on policy with respect to the Golan Heights was contained in the 1975 letter from President Gerald Ford to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin which stated that “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 must be predicated on Israel remaining on the Golan Heights.”
What made the Ford letter so significant was that it provided the basis for the formulation of U.S. policy by subsequent administrations. Thus, right before the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, Secretary of State James Baker wrote a letter to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, stating: “You expressed a special concern about the Golan Heights. In this context, the United States continues to stand behind the assurance given by President Ford to Prime Minister Rabin on September 1, 1975.” A second American letter reconfirming the Ford letter was written in 1996 by Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well. American assurances on the Golan Heights were bipartisan and in many respects set the stage for finally recognizing Israeli sovereignty on March 25, 2019.
The new U.S. approach to the Golan Heights was not formally locked in by means of a bilateral treaty. Thus, theoretically, the Biden administration would be within its legal right to modify this policy. These kinds of changes unfortunately happen. For example, Israel received a letter from President George W. Bush in 2004 recognizing Israel’s right to “defensible borders.” The letter was even backed by overwhelming majorities in both houses of the U.S. Congress. Nonetheless, the Obama administration disavowed the Bush letter. President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken have not renounced Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, but they haven’t accepted it either.
Clearly, further diplomacy is required between Jerusalem and Washington. Perhaps the issue can be settled before the first summit meeting between President Biden and Prime Minister Bennett. Remember, Iran is seeking to encircle Israel with its Shiite militias, in Lebanon, in new bases within Syria, and eventually in Jordan. If U.S. policy over the Golan Heights is interpreted as changing, that might even invite a conflict that neither the U.S. nor Israel is seeking.