Updated Jun 5, 2018

U.S. recognition of Israeli Golan Heights claim would raise hopes, pose risks

Israeli soldier next to the Syrian border on May 10, 2018, in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. Photo: Lior Mizrahi via Getty Images

Israeli officials are actively lobbying the Trump administration to formally recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, according to reports from. Since Israel captured the Golan Heights plateau from Syria in the 1967 War, every subsequent attempt to negotiate peace between the two countries has revolved around the land's return.

Why it matters: While it is virtually unimaginable that Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights, formal U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty would cement that reality, slaying another sacred cow of Middle East diplomacy while changing little on the ground. It would also be another political win for Prime Minister Netanyahu, already celebrating President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal and the U.S. embassy's move to Jerusalem.

As recently as 2011, Netanyahu was engaged in backchannel land-for-peace discussions with Syria. But the disastrous Syrian Civil War has convinced nearly all Israelis that the Golan Heights will never be returned — and shouldn't be. They see Syria as permanently unstable, enabling groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda to take root. Even worse, Israel sees Iran and its proxies trying to use Syrian territory as a base from which to attack Israel. Were any of those groups to gain access to the strategic high ground overlooking northern Israel, Israeli communities would be at risk.

But, but, but: The U.S. and Israel might each have a reason to hold off on formal recognition. U.S. partners among the Syrian opposition generally ignore the Golan issue, but even those who detest Bashar al-Assad might feel forced to pledge fealty to the goal of recovering Syrian territory lost to Israel. And Israel’s highest strategic priority — gaining Russia’s assistance in pushing Iranian military elements out of Syria — could be threatened if Russia saw a U.S. Golan Heights declaration as unnecessarily humiliating to their client, Assad.

Daniel Shapiro is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

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