by Hugh Fitzgerald
“US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday that under current conditions he supports Israel controlling the Golan Heights, but cast doubt on the legality of the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the strategic plateau.” The report on his interview on CNN is here: “Blinken supports Israel holding Golan, but backs off recognizing sovereignty,” Times of Israel, February 9, 2021:
…During an interview with CNN, Blinken was asked if the Biden administration would continue to “see the Golan Heights as part of Israel.”
“Look, leaving aside the legalities of that question, as a practical matter, the Golan is very important to Israel’s security,” Blinken said.
But why leave aside the “legalities” of the question? Apparently, Blinken thinks the ‘legalities of that question” are not in Israel’s favor, but “for now” it is “very important to Israel’s security.” In other words, he is saying that “while we do not recognize Israel’s legal right to the Golan, at this point, given the dangers from Syria we will not pressure it to give up control of the Golan.”
That’s not the way to deal with the Golan. First, Blinken ought to have mentioned the several bases for Israel’s claim to keep the Golan. Blinken might have mentioned that, in the original version of the Mandate for Palestine, an area in the northwestern part of the Golan region, delineated by a rough triangle formed by the towns of Banias, Quneitra and the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee, was part of the British Palestine Mandate in which the establishment of a Jewish national home had been promised. In 1923, this triangle in northwestern Golan was ceded to the French Mandate in Syria, infuriating not only the Zionists who regarded this as a betrayal of Great Britain’s commitment as holder of the Mandate, but also the League of Nations’ Mandates Commission, headed by Swiss professor William Rappard. The severing of the Golan from the Mandate’s territory was not the only time the British, as Mandatory, violated the League of Nations’ promises to the Zionists, in order to further its own geopolitical goals.. The giveaway of the Golan to Syria is akin to what the British did when they removed all of the territory east of the Jordan that had been originally assigned to become part of the future Jewish state – some 78% of that territory –from the provisions of the Mandate, closed off all Jewish settlement in the area, in order to hand that territory over to the Hashemite Emir Abdullah, as a consolation prize for not having been put on the throne of Syria as his younger brother Feisal had been put by the British on the thrown of Iraq. Thus did all of Eastern Palestine become the Emirate of Transjordan.
There is another “legality” that Blinken overlooks. Not only does Israel have a claim to extend its sovereignty to most of the Golan, based on the original version of the Mandate, but more importantly, the Golan had only one use during the period 1949-1967, when – looming as it does 3,000 feet over the Israeli valley below – it was a source of constant attack by Syrian artillery on Israel civilians.
In June 1967 Israel seized the Golan Heights, which Syria had turned into one large network of bunkers and artillery positions. For years, Syrian gunners, shooting at random and without provocation, would fire on Israeli fishermen plying their trade on the Sea of Galilee or at Israeli farmers in the Hula Valley below. In a costly uphill battle, the Israelis swept out the Syrian defenders and put an end to the harassment.
It is a long-established rule of international law that territory won in a defensive war may be kept, for it if were always to be given back, there would be no price to pay for aggression. In the case of the Golan Heights, its entire use by Syria was for aggression – war made on Israeli civilians below. The most important document concerning the Golan is U.N. Resolution 242, passed on November 22, 1967, which set out the considerations which would determine which territories won by Israel the Jewish state would be allowed to keep. Resolution 242 was largely composed by the British U.N. Ambassador, Lord Hugh Caradon, who was careful to insist that Israel did not have to withdraw from “all the territories” nor from “the territories” but simply from “territories” it occupied in the recent conflict. The Arab states kept trying to have the phrase “all the territories” inserted, but Caradon rejected that attempt. Israel, the Resolution read, was entitled to “secure [i.e. defensible] and recognized borders. “
Caradon was adamant that there would be no return to the pre-1967 lines. He said:
Much play has been made of the fact that we didn’t say “the” territories or “all the” territories. But that was deliberate. I myself knew very well the 1967 boundaries and if we had put in the “the” or “all the” that could only have meant that we wished to see the 1967 boundaries perpetuated in the form of a permanent frontier. This I was certainly not prepared to recommend.
On another occasion, to an interviewer from the Journal of Palestine Studies (Spring-Summer 1976), he again insisted on the deliberateness of the wording. He was asked:
The basis for any settlement will be United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, of which you were the architect. Would you say there is a contradiction between the part of the resolution that stresses the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and that which calls for Israeli withdrawal from “occupied territories,” but not from “the occupied territories”?
Nota bene: “from territories occupied” is not the same thing as “from occupied territories” – the first is neutral, the second a loaded description. Lord Caradon answered:
I defend the resolution as it stands. What it states, as you know, is first the general principle of inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war. That means that you can’t justify holding onto territory merely because you conquered it. We could have said: well, you go back to the 1967 line. But I know the 1967 line, and it’s a rotten line. You couldn’t have a worse line for a permanent international boundary. It’s where the troops happened to be on a certain night in 1948. It’s got no relation to the needs of the situation.
Had we said that you must go back to the 1967 line, which would have resulted if we had specified a retreat from all the occupied territories, we would have been wrong.
Note how Lord Caradon says that “you can’t justify holding onto territory merely because you conquered it,” with that “merely” applying to Jordan, which held the West Bank purely as the military occupier between 1949 and 1976, but not to Israel, because of the Mandate’s explicit provisions allocating the territory known, since 1950, as the “West Bank” to the Jewish state. Note, too, the firmness of his dismissal of the 1967 lines as nothing more than “where the troops happened to be on a certain night in 1948,” that is, nothing more than armistice lines and not internationally recognized borders. Caradon continued to insist that Israel was entitled to hold onto territory it needed to have those “secure [defensible] and recognized borders.
And it was not only the Israeli military men who were unanimously convinced that they had to retain the Golan if they were to be able to block an invasion route from the north, and to permanently end the deadly barrages that Syria had rained down on Israeli farmers and fishermen for decades from the Golan. Also convinced of the need for Israel to hold onto the Golan was the American military — as so few seem to remember.
It is constantly overlooked that in 1967, President Johnson sent a delegation of high military officers to Israel to report on the territories that, in their opinion, it was essential for Israel to retain. The two areas that, in their opinion, it was most vital for Israel to hold onto were the Jordan Valley and the Golan. It would have been useful for Secretary Blinken to have reread that report provided by these American military and even more useful if he had chosen to remind his audience about it. He could have pointed out that “both Israel and American military men are convinced that in order to properly defend itself Israel must retain the Golan Heights,” and our Administration concurs that understanding.
A last word from Tony Blinken on Israel’s continued control of the Golan:
“As long as [dictator Bashar] Assad is in power in Syria, as long as Iran is present in Syria, militia groups backed by Iran, the Assad regime itself – all of these pose a significant security threat to Israel, and as a practical matter, the control of the Golan in that situation I think remains of real importance to Israel’s security,” he said.
However, he indicated that in the future US could be open to reexamining that position.
“Legal questions are something else. And over time, if the situation were to change in Syria, that’s something we’d look at. But we are nowhere near as that,” Blinken said.
Control of the Golan is essential to Israel’s security in the north. Despots and dynasties may come and go in Syria; protestations of peace may be uttered in order to regain the Golan; regimes can be both fleeting and fickle; but geography remains. The Golan at its highest point, Mount Hermon, looms 9,000 feet above Israel’s Hula Valley, and the Sea of Galilee, below. Israel can never again allow itself to lose control of the Golan’s looming heights, no matter what the Syrians might promise to get it back. .
Here is what Tony Blinken ought to have said:
As to the Golan, as you know, before the Six-Day War the Syrians, who had built bunkers and gun emplacements for their military, would routinely fire, from the Golan, at a height of 5,000 feet, on Israeli farmers and fishermen below. It was that constant aggression that Israel put paid to when it won the Golan in the Six-Day War. U.N. Resolution 242 set out the justification for Israeli retention of territories it had won in the recent conflict. Israel was permitted to retain territories that it needed in order to be assured of “secure [defensible] and recognized boundaries.” Both Israel’s military men, and American military men sent to Israel by President Johnson, agreed that retention of the Golan was essential to Israel’s defense. That is why President Biden has agreed that the Golan should forever remain part of Israel.
Let’s be clear. U.N. Resolution 242 is based on the understanding that the victor in a defensive war can retain territory taken from its aggressor. It has long been a principle of public international law that when an aggressor state loses in a war, the victor has a right to keep territory won in that war. For if it were not the case, if any aggressor who lost a war could be assured of having territory he lost returned to him, there would be little incentive for a would-be aggressor not to engage in war. The map of the world has been drawn and re-drawn by wars. Think of how much territory the Germans permanently lost after World War II, fully 25% of the territory of prewar Weimar Germany, to Poland (East Prussia) and the Soviet Union (among other territories it won, Russia holds onto Kaliningrad, the former Königsberg, which is totally surrounded by Poland and Lithuania).
Another example is Alto Adige, which under Austrian rule had been known as the Sudtirol, which was awarded after World War I to Italy, one of the victorious Allies, by the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. No one then, save for the Austrians themselves, who had first started hostilities with Italy, found the Italian takeover of the Alto Adige as objectionable, and now everyone concedes that it is an integral part of Italy.
That has always been the accepted rule in international law. But things changed when it came to dealing with the consequences of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War. Until then, the so-called “international community” had raised no objections to the acquisition of territory by those who were victorious in a war of self-defense. With Israel, things would be different.
This Administration, taking into account how the Golan was used by the Syrians as a base for aggression for nearly two decades, understanding that U.N. Resolution 242 allows Israel to retain territories It needs if it is to have “secure [defensible] and recognized boundaries,” and finally, taking into account as well the long-settled principle of international law that allows the victor in a war of self-defense to keep territory it has won from the aggressor, will continue to recognize the Golan as an integral part of Israel.
How would the Sunni Arab states react to such a comprehensive statement supporting Israel’s forty-year annexation of the Golan? They should be quietly pleased to see Bashar Assad get his comeuppance. There is no love lost between the Sunni states and the regime of Bashar Assad. They might welcome this dismissal of Syria’s claims to the Golan, and the public humiliation of Bashar Assad himself. Everyone knows that Israel will never give up the Golan. That being the case, why should the U.S. provoke an unnecessary quarrel with Israel? Why not accept Israel’s fait accompli, which is justified by the fact that the Golan was originally meant to be covered by the Palestine Mandate, as well as by U.N. Resolution 242, and by customary international law, which allows territory won from an aggressor to be retained? For forty years the Golan has been annexed to Israel; there’s no need to revisit that matter but, instead, in the Middle East, the Biden Administration should focus exclusively on the threat posed by Iran: its nuclear program, its ballistic missiles, its support for the terror groups Hezbollah and Hamas, and its violent mischief-making, through proxies and allies, in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
First published in Jihad Watch.
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