How can the United States help Israel defend itself against the threats amplified by the nuclear deal with Iran? That is the question that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will raise with President Barack Obama at the White House on Monday.
Defense officials from the two countries have already discussed offers of advanced aircraft — F-35 jet fighters and V-22 transports — to Israel, as well as other military hardware. The President also might commit to reacting forcibly to Iranian violations of the agreement and to support Israel if it were attacked by Hezbollah.
But beyond these strategic understandings, the meeting also could produce a historic breakthrough. America could recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Measuring 500 square miles — slightly larger than New York City — the Golan represented the northernmost crest of ancient Israel. Nevertheless, when dividing up the Middle East after World War I, the British ceded the area to France which, in 1945, attached it to the newly-independent Syria.
Five years later, on the day of Israel’s creation, the Syrian army descended the Heights aiming to destroy the Jewish state. Driven back up the Golan, the Syrians spent the next 19 years periodically bombarding Israeli farms below. Finally, in the 1967 Six-Day War, following massive enemy shelling, Israeli forces captured the Golan. They repulsed a major Syrian attack in 1973 and have safeguarded the region ever since.
Still, Israel never annexed the Golan. Apart from extending its law over the Heights in 1981, Israel refrained from incorporating the area into its borders. The reason was the possibility of peace with Syria.
A succession of Israeli Prime Ministers, assisted by American mediators, offered to trade the Golan for a treaty with Damascus. None of these initiatives succeeded. Neither Hafez Al-Assad, Syria’s longtime dictator, nor his equally ruthless son Bashar, was willing to end the state of war with Israel, even in exchange for its return to the pre-1967 lines.
Israel could not have been more fortunate. Such a withdrawal would today have placed Hezbollah directly above Israeli cities and villages in Northern Galilee. ISIS terrorists, now deployed far away from the southern Golan, would be dug in on the Sea of Galilee’s eastern shore. A large share of Israel’s population, as well as its major water source, would be constantly threatened.
Yet, even with the Golan securely in Israeli hands, the situation is growing perilous. Emboldened by the nuclear deal, Iran has dispatched thousands of troops to Syria, turning the 1967 lines into a militarized front with Israel.
Senior Iranian commanders, collaborating with Hezbollah, have already tried to launch terrorist attacks against Israeli targets on the Golan. Israeli intelligence expects the number of Iranian troops in Syria to expand dramatically over the coming months, just as Hezbollah — currently armed with 150,000 rockets — receives many millions of dollars in sanctions relief from its sponsors in Tehran. Intimidated and outgunned, United Nations observers in the area have essentially disintegrated. For the first time in more than 40 years, the Golan could again become a catalyst for war.
That is, unless Israel is empowered to keep the peace. Controlling the Golan more than twice as long as Syria did, Israel has transformed this once-barren war zone into a hub of high-tech agriculture, world-class wineries and pristine nature reserves. In contrast to the West Bank with its large and often hostile Palestinian population, the Golan is home to a small number of Druze who are closely tied to their proudly Israeli kinsmen. Israel should continue to settle the Golan with those committed to its defense and development. And the United States has every interest in encouraging those efforts.
While hosting Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Obama could acknowledge the fact that the Golan can no longer be exchanged for peace with Syria because Syria no longer exists. He could recognize Israel’s immense contributions to the region’s security and the dangers that increasingly jeopardize it. By backing Israel’s historic claims, the United States could send a potent message to the entire Middle East — that the Golan Heights will never again be a battlefield.
Michael B. Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States and a Member of Knesset, is the author of Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide (Random House: 2015). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.