When the Ottoman Empire was divided after World War I, the strategically important Golan Heights were originally included in the territory assigned to Great Britain, but Great Britain soon transferred the region to French Mandate Syria pursuant to a 1923 treaty that established the boundary between Syria and Eretz Yisrael. After Israel defeated the Syrians in the 1948 War of Independence, that boundary became the basis for the armistice line negotiated by the two countries.
Until Israel’s capture of the Golan Heights in 1967, Syria sat perched atop its summit and used its position to unremittingly shell Israeli farms and settlements in the Galilee below and, equally important, to attack Israel’s watershed and Hula Valley water projects.
During the Yom Kippur War, Israel not only repelled Syria’s attempt to recapture the Golan, but drove deep into Syria; ultimately, it withdrew from much of the territory it captured, but kept two-thirds of the Golan Heights. Not surprisingly, Israel’s defensive victory earned the enmity of the United Nations, and Israel incurred further UN condemnation when Prime Minister Begin formally annexed the Golan Heights in December 1981.
Syria continues to demand the return of the land that Israel fairly, and at great human cost, won in a defensive war. For almost half a century, there has been unremitting pressure on Israel – including, sadly, from the United States under certain administrations – to return the Golan to Syria.
In late 1994 and early 1995, the Clinton administration floated several trial balloons to test the waters regarding the possibility of stationing American troops there to act as a “peacekeeping force” as part of a comprehensive peace settlement pursuant to which the Golan would be returned to Syria in exchange for which Israel would get… well, nothing, as is invariably the case in such proposals.
This seemed to me like such a senseless and alarming idea that I wrote to several members of the defense establishment explaining my opposition to such a plan and soliciting their thoughts. Below are five responses that, even today, are interesting to read:
In this January 19, 1995 correspondence on his Center for Strategic and International Studies letterhead, Zbigniew Brzezinski writes:
I support the deployment of American forces in the Golan Heights in the event a genuine peace treaty is signed between Israel and Syria, providing for some form of international security arrangements in the wake of Israeli withdrawal. That formula has worked very well in the Sinai and it can be creatively applied in the Golan context as well. Some of the agitation against the formula originates with the Likud Party in Israel, which is against any territorial compromise. Its spokesmen hope to frighten Americans against supporting the proposed peace arrangements as a means of preventing it.
Brzezinski, who served as a counselor to LBJ and as national security advisor to President Carter, was well known for his obsessive animus toward Israel; for his support of a Palestinian state; for his vicious criticism of the pro-Israel lobby as “too powerful”; and for his promotion of U.S.-Hamas dialogue.
Urging an American policy that would decouple Israeli security from all questions of territorial sovereignty, he advocated forcing Israel to end “Jewish colonialization” through removing Israeli “settlements” and demilitarizing the “occupied territories.”
His advocacy in this letter of “some form of international security arrangements in the wake of Israeli withdrawal” is entirely consistent with his general approach of forcing Israel to leave the Golan, and laying the blame on Likud for the failure to secure Mideast peace is classic Brzezinski.
In this January 4, 1995 correspondence on his Hoover Institution letterhead, George Shultz writes:
No doubt American peacekeeping on the Golan Heights pose many issues, some pro and some con… If Israel should decide that peace with Syria is worth giving up the Golan Heights then the question is, what will be the status of that particular piece of ground? Israel’s security will always, as you say in your letter, be based fundamentally on its own strength, backed, I hope, by the United States. Nevertheless, I cannot imagine Israel being willing to see the Golan Heights be anything but demilitarized and subject to some sort of international presence to verify that fact. Israel has historically and understandably found the UN rather hostile and would put more trust in the U.S. That is the counterargument as I see it.
When Shultz, who had served as Nixon’s secretary of labor and later as secretary of the treasury, became Reagan’s secretary of state, Israel supporters – fearful over his previous position as an executive with Bechtel and his relationship with Saudi Arabia – soon had their worst fears realized. He questioned the extent of Reagan’s pro-Israel stance; he became the first secretary of state to legitimize the PLO and to include the terrorist organization in U.S. Mideast policy; and he spearheaded the “Shultz Plan,” which adopted “land for peace” as official U.S. policy.
Shultz urged that the future of the Golan be determined through Israeli discussions with Syria, which ultimately refused to negotiate. However, he subsequently shifted gears and became a tremendous Israel supporter to the point that he was honored by AIPAC. Our letter reflects his radical change, voicing as it does the centrality of Israel’s security as an American concern and expressing “understanding” for Israel’s view of the UN as “hostile.”
In this January 12, 1995 correspondence on his Center for Strategic and International Studies letterhead, Harold Brown writes:
I would prefer not to see U.S. troops on the Golan. But if some commitment is required to reach a Syrian-Israeli peace, we should consider it. Details (size, nature and purpose of the force, for example) would matter a great deal. There is a U.S. force in the Sinai, as part of the Israeli-Egyptian peace, but that is an area less inhabited and where the former enemies are more distant from each other.
To repeat, I view such a U.S. force as a last resort for reasons including those you mention, in achieving a Syrian-Israeli peace. But I would not rule it out absolutely.
Brown, a secular Jew, served as LBJ’s air force secretary before becoming Carter’s secretary of defense, in which capacity he played a leading role in setting the groundwork for the Camp David Accords. While serving a fervently anti-Israel president, he was not at the forefront of the administration’s public attacks against Israel unlike other high state and defense officials at the time. He actually became the first American Cabinet official to tour the Golan, notwithstanding fierce opposition from U.S. Embassy officials who argued that taking such tours constituted tacit endorsement of the “Israeli occupation.”
In his classic low-key and analytical style, Brown explains in our letter that while his strong preference is to keep American troops out of the Golan, he is open to the possibility “as a last resort” but that facts matter, including “size, nature and purpose of the force.”
It is also interesting to note that in marked contrast to Brzezinski, who supported troops on the Golan because troops were deployed successfully in Sinai, Brown explains why such a comparison is inapt.
In this January 18, 1995 correspondence, Donald Rumsfeld writes:
I quite agree with you that stationing U.S. forces in the Golan Heights would be a very poor idea.
I also thank you for your comments on the letter we sent to President Clinton about the B-2 bomber. I certainly hope that he reads it carefully.
Rumsfeld, who served as secretary of defense under both Ford and George W. Bush, was a staunch Israel supporter who spoke openly about Israel’s right to retain control of captured Arab lands and supported Israel’s right to build there. He often used the phrase “so-called occupied territory,” and he convinced Bush that Arafat was not a partner for peace. Consistent with his lifelong position, he recently characterized President Trump’s official recognition of Jerusalem as “a no-brainer.”
Rumsfeld firmly opposed discussions with Syria about returning the Golan, and his opposition to stationing American troops there as expressed in our letter is a logical consequence of his belief that Israel should not leave the Golan. He was a strong supporter of American purchases of the B-2 Spirit (a.k.a. the “Stealth Bomber”), and Clinton did ultimately purchase them.
In this January 23, 1995 correspondence on his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff letterhead, John Shalikashvili writes:
Peace in the Mideast is not only a key U.S. foreign policy goal but it is also important to our military preparedness in that vital region. A critical element of achieving peace between Israel lies in how the peace is secured. Because an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty does not appear to be imminent, it is premature for me to discuss the matter of U.S. military involvement in any detail.
In this letter, Shalikashvili repeats almost verbatim his frequent refusal to comment on the issue, including such a refusal in December 1994 after a state visit with Rabin, during which he declined an offer to tour the Golan Heights.
Finally, in this January 23, 1995 letter, Stansfield Turner writes:
By coincidence, I recently sat in on an official, but unclassified, briefing by Defense Department officials which included this topic. We would place troops there only after both sides agreed to a peaceful arrangement and to having foreign troops monitor it.
In that connection, you might recall that we have been doing that in the Sinai since 1981.
The point you raise, though, is one the U.S. is going to have to face repeatedly in the future; that is, what risks we take in the name of helping to maintain peace. We cannot just leave it to the UN or to other nations, but we also have limits on the price we will pay; witness our withdrawal from Somalia after some loss of life.
After serving as Supreme Allied Commander NATO Southern Europe, Turner was Carter’s third choice to serve as his CIA director in which capacity, much to the consternation of Israel, he limited its receipt of satellite images. He was not a Carter administration insider, and most commentators minimize his impact on American foreign policy.
Turner manifested generally negative views about addressing the Israeli-Arab conflict by stationing American troops in harm’s way: “I really worry about getting our people caught in this body-bag type of situation – having the suicide bombers focusing on us or UN troops because they see us as an impediment.”
In our letter, however, he walks the line between not abdicating the responsibility to others, but also taking a careful measure on “the price we will pay.”
* * * * *
On October 25, 1994, shortly before these six letters were written, the Center for Security Policy released an expert study on the subject (it may well have been a briefing on this report that Stansfield Turner attended). After presenting an in-depth analysis and report, the Center’s conclusions could not have been clearer (the document is fascinating and well worth a read; it is available online):
There is no mission or rationale for a U.S. peacekeeping force on the Golan that would justify the resulting costs and risks. Indeed, the net effect could be negative for Israel’s security and regional stability, while the consequences could include the loss of U.S. lives and, possibly, a credibility-damaging retreat of the U.S. forces under terrorist fire. In any event, such a deployment would increase the danger of direct U.S. involvement in a future Middle East war and undermine Israel’s standing with the U.S. public as a self-reliant ally.
Of course, this entire issue was essentially rendered moot when, on March 25, 2019, President Trump, unquestionably the most pro-Israel president in history, signed a proclamation recognizing the Golan Heights as part of Israel and rejecting all Syrian claims to sovereignty over the territory.
Not surprisingly, the move was condemned by most of the world, including UN Secretary-General António Guterres who commented that “the status of Golan has not changed.” On April 23, 2019, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that a new community in the Golan Heights would be named after Trump and, on June 16, 2019, Israel announced the establishment in Golan of a planned settlement called “Trump Heights.”