Speaking recently to Yediot Aharonot, an Israeli newspaper, Israel’s Chief of General Staff commented that withdrawal from the Golan Heights would not endanger Israel’s security. According to Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) could defend the country’s borders even if a political decision were taken to leave the 620-square mile strategic plateau. Israel formally annexed the Golan in 1981 after defeating Syrian aggression earlier, in 1967. Long very important in Jewish history, the Golan area’s population of about 35,000 is divided evenly between Israelis and Druse Arabs. Notwithstanding General Yaalon’s assurances, an Israeli Golan withdrawal, from an area less the 1 percent of Syria’s total size, could leave the northern region of Israel open to Syrian or even Iranian invasion through the Jordan Valley. (History records that more than 60 assaults on the Land of Israel west of the Jordan were launched from or through the Golan.) Such a withdrawal could also destroy and uproot 32 Golan Jewish communities and threaten fully a third of Israel’s water supply.
Yaalon’s rationale is almost certainly based on the following presumption: Without an Israel-Syria peace agreement (there is still, at Syria’s sole insistence, an official state of war between the two countries), a major war could result at any time from confrontation with Hizbullah terrorists on Israel’s northern border. And any Israeli plan to prevent such a war with Syria, which backs these terrorists in Lebanon, would require a demilitarized Golan Heights. The problem here, is that Syrian demilitarization of the Golan, which is roughly the size of New York City’s borough of Queens, would never work.
Unlike the concept of Palestinian demilitarization, which is often discussed with reference to creating a “safe” Palestinian state, the key issue here has nothing to do with “legal personality.” Rather, in the matter of Golan demilitarization, the issue concerns more traditional international obligations of “good faith” and various associated difficulties of enforcement. In essence, the problem of Golan demilitarization stems from the undeniable shortcomings of legal guarantees in a world where the very idea of an “international community” has now become self-parody.
A Golan agreement with Syria would surely permit Israel to operate its own early-warning stations, but these facilities could not be an adequate substitute for effective defense. In order to get such permission, Syria might be offered certain reciprocal ground station oppotunities. Indeed, in July 1995 then-Prime Minister Rabin even offered the Syrians stations within pre-1967 Israel as compensation.
For real security, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) must retain its positions on the Golan for constant surveillance of the Syrian army. Pre-1967 warning stations do not have a clear line of sight deep into Syrian territory. Not surprisingly, a large number of former Israeli intelligence officers, regardless of party affiliation, continue to oppose any Israeli dependence upon third parties for information concerned with national survival decisions. Even a demilitarized Golan with early warning based upon an expanded American role and on the most technologically advanced satellite systems would not be enough. In the event of a warning failure, which is always possible (e.g., the case of the Yom Kippur War in 1973), Syrian tanks could conceivably penetrate into Israel.
What can Israel hope to achieve from a so- called peace agreement with Syria? Talks between the two countries have effectively been stalled since 2000 because of Syrian intransigence. As Yaalon himself noted, Syria already has “missiles that put all of Israel in range, and chemical capabilties.” An Israeli departure from the Golan would do nothing to change this primary strategic situation. Nor would it likely reduce the prospect of an escalation to all-out war on the Lebanese front or reduce the influence of certain Palestinian terrorist factions still based securely in Damascus.
What about American troops on a demilitarized Golan, an idea still fashionable in some circles associating an Israeli withdrawal with a Syrian “peace.” Stationed in a very small area, such deployment would surely place these troops in grave danger from well-armed terrorists and from proxies of hostile regimes. More than likely, American forces would be drawn into both inter-Arab and Arab-Israeli disputes.
Further, Israel’s military dependence upon the United States could grow to unmanageable levels; and Syria might even come to see the American presence as an affront to its own sovereignty. In that event, Syria’s President could be expected to push for prompt removal of the U.S. force, a demand similar to Egypt’s 1967 demand for U.N. withdrawal from Sinai. Ironically, that demand led to the Six- Day War, which gave rise to Syria’s Golan loss in the first place.
For all these reasons a demilitarized Golan could not assure Israel’s basic security. According to an informed statement several years back by four Israeli (res.) generals (Y. Sagui; M. Ram; D. Hagoel; and A. Levran): “Israel’s presence on the Golan Heights constitutes the optimal strategic balance with Syria and insurance against a massive Syrian attack. The IDF’s proximity to Damascus is also a guarantee against a Syrian missile launch into Israel’s rear. Any change in this balance would lessen Israel’s deterrent against potential Syrian aggression and jeopardize the quiet and stability that have characterized the Golan since 1974.” As for the use of American troops: “Involving American troops on the Golan Heights, whether as ‘monitors’ or ‘peacekeepers’ or in some other role, would be a blunder.”
The Golan, which ranges up to a height of 2300 feet, dominates the Jordan Valley, the lowest point on Earth. On this strategic plateau, there are only two natural terrain bottlenecks. These choke points are defensible. But with the Golan in Syrian hands, however “demilitarized,” thousands of enemy tanks, backed up by missiles and aircraft, could still penetrate Israel.
Demilitarization of the Golan Heights can never be consistent with Israel’s security. From the standpoint of international law, such proposed Syrian demilitarization would cause great strategic and diplomatic difficulties for Israel. Recognizing this, it is now up to the government of Israel to ensure that the Golan remain firmly in Israeli hands and that Gen. Yaalon’s ill-advised recommendation be rejected.
(c) Copyright The Jewish Press, 2004. All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on international law.