Senior American lawmaker vows to lobby Trump administration to declare contested territory part of Jewish state
United States Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) vowed to lobby the White House to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights after touring the Jewish state’s northern frontier with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and U.S. Ambassador David Friedman.
“Strategically, I am standing on one of the most important pieces of ground in the state of Israel, and who would you give it back to?, Graham said in reference to the territory captured from Syria in the 1967 war. “You’re going to give [the Golan] to [Syrian leader Bashar] Assad? I think not. You might as well give it to Iran. So, the idea of this going to somebody else is off the table,” he emphasized.
For his part, Netanyahu welcomed the “very strong statements that express the U.S. policy, the policy of President Trump, of support for Israel. They are taking this to a very concrete step…. Otherwise, our border will be with Iran on the Sea of Galilee and we cannot accept that.”
After returning to Jerusalem, the South Carolina lawmaker told The Media Line that part of his motive is indeed to send a message to Tehran that its destabilizing behavior will be met with gestures of this sort to the benefit of Israel.
“Iranian efforts to dismember the region have gotten stronger,” Graham explained. “Today is poetic because the day Qasem Soleimani [leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ infamous Quds Force] has been given the highest award in Iran for fighting Israel and the United States is the same day I’d like to start a discussion back home about recognizing the Golan as being part of Israel.”
The matter has gained traction since the onset of the Syrian conflict, with many high-ranking Israeli politicians calling on Washington to recognize the Jewish state’s right to keep the Golan in perpetuity, as opposed to returning it to the Assad regime.
The massive expanse of elevated plateaus overlooks densely populated civilian areas and, in the past, provided fertile ground for launching attacks on Israelis. Because of this, Jerusalem in 1981 authorized the de facto annexation of the region—a move unanimously rejected by the international community—by extending Israeli “laws, jurisdiction and administration.”
“Israel’s retention of the Golan is a security imperative for the foreseeable future, and the Syria war proved correct those who opposed handing it over as part of a deal with Assad,” Dr. Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel and currently a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center, told The Media Line.
“Imagine if Israel was in a position whereby Iran and other actors were setting up bases along the border and the Israeli military had already withdrawn from the territory,” he said. “Even so, while recognition from the U.S. would be important, it may not be entirely worthwhile as Israel currently has no intention of giving back the Golan, and an American declaration could preclude future peace talks if the circumstances change.”
In fact, there has been a reluctance to press the issue with a U.S. president that already broke with conventional wisdom in December 2017 by declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“The Israeli government never raised a request for such recognition from the Obama administration, and, during parts of that time, indirect negotiations were underway on some kind of deal based on a land-for-peace formula,” Daniel Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and currently a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line.
Indeed, numerous Israeli premiers have in the past held secret talks with Damascus with a view toward potentially ceding the region as part of an end-of-conflict agreement. However, with Iran now entrenching itself militarily in Syria, coupled with Iranian proxy Hizbullah’s growing strength in neighboring Lebanon, the notion of giving up the highlands has become anathema to most Israelis.
“What changed is the collapse of any type of stable Syrian entity [leading to] a near-consensus that a territorial exchange as part of a peace process is impossible, perhaps for decades,” ambassador Shapiro continued. “Given there is no chance of resurrecting any dialogue, the status quo will at the very least be maintained or [President Trump] could decide to [offer recognition]. The question is whether there is a benefit to the U.S., given the issue is not on the international agenda.”
Indeed, some analysts argue that the present diplomatic push is connected to the upcoming April 9 Israeli elections, and that American recognition of Jerusalem’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights—or even a related declaration of intent—could provide Prime Minister Netanyahu with a big boost in what is shaping up to be a close race.
And even if not forthcoming, there are few issues in Israel that unite politicians and the public alike more than the perceived necessity of maintaining security control over a territory that historically was used as a staging area in multiple attempts to destroy the country.