This is from Professor Eugene Kontorovich’s written testimony to a congressional committee on national security on July 17.
He first goes through the legal arguments that no international law is violated by Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.
But then he digresses and discusses the issue of the “experts” that are against the US recognizing this annexation, and how very wrong these “experts” have been on Syria.
Even discussing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan purely from a legal perspective goes sharply against the grain of consensus among Middle East experts. The conventional view is that Israel must at some point return the Golan Heights to the Syrian Arab Republic. Many will likely argue that recognition would harm U.S. relations with the Arab world, or be “destabilizing.” Thus in closing, a few observations are in order about the value of the accepted wisdom in these matters.
…. Less than a decade ago, the conventional wisdom of the foreign policy establishment was that Israel should return the Golan Heights to Syria in a peace deal. Not only would an Israeli withdrawal make peace between the two countries, the story went, it would get Damascus to break its alliance with Iran. The views of Amb. Martin Indyk in a 2010 New York Times op-ed were typical:
Today, nothing could better help Obama to isolate Iran than for Netanyahu to offer to cede the Golan. . . Netanyahu must make a choice: take on the president of the United States, or take on his right wing.
This position was standard. Indeed, never were experts more confident that Assad was a partner for peace than in the years just prior to his campaign of systematic ethnic cleansing and gassing of his own population.
In 2009, a blue-ribbon panel that that included Zbigniew Brzezinski, Chuck Hagel, Lee Hamilton, Brent Scowcroft and others released a report about the “last chance” for peace. Among other things, it recommended that the U.S push for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan to “fundamentally transform the regional landscape and ultimately detach Damascus from its uneasy strategic partnership with Iran.”
In the same vein, Richard Haass, the head of the Council on Foreign Relations, painted this rosy picture:
Israel’s security could be further buttressed by demilitarizing the territory returned to Syria. Technology could provide early-warning systems. Peacekeepers (possibly American) could be stationed there, much as they are in the Sinai to buttress the peace between Israel and Egypt. And the Syrian leadership is sufficiently strong that it could live up to security commitments.”
Today, every aspect of the assumptions behind these suggestions has been entirely discredited.
Firstly, Assad is not and never was a peacemaker. The notion that he would abide by a deal with Israel any more than the countless ceasefires, chemical weapons agreements and treaties, and basic international commitments that he has flouted in the past seven years strains credulity.
Second, his alliance with Iran is not a bad relationship he stumbled into, but rather his greatest strategic asset. Iran has ensured the survival of his regime and family when most others countries would turn away in disgust: that is not an alliance he would give up for the Golan.
As for peacekeepers in a possible peace deal, the U.N. peacekeepers already stationed in the Golan fled their positions at the outbreak of the civil war. The demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria – the fruit of earlier diplomatic accords – has been remilitarized by both Assad and rebel groups. Nor have U.S. allies in Syria, such as the Kurds, been able to rely much on direct U.S. backing when the going gets tough.
Thus the peace deal widely favored just a few years ago by leading policy experts would have expanded Assad’s power and threatened Israel – for naught.
The profound and demonstrable error of the foreign policy consensus in these matters – from Jerusalem to the Golan – is something that must be taken into account going forward. It suggests that in charting future policy, the U.S. should not be guided by the same hollow certitudes. In the wake of these serious misjudgments by leading Middle East professionals, it would behoove the U.S. to look in totally different directions for solutions. Just as many said “now is not the right time” to move the embassy, a similar refrain will be heard about the Golan. But now – in the wake of falsely positive predictions about the nature of the Assad regime and falsely negative ones about the consequences of moving the embassy to Israel – it is the right time to seek entirely new paradigms in these matters. Recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan is a start.
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