How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
In 1981, Israel extended its law and administration to the Golan Heights, a region it had captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. The move amounted to unilateral annexation. For six months, the region’s largely Syrian Arab residents protested. But neither the platitudes of the international community nor the displeasure of the United Nations stopped Israel from building settlements, kibbutzim, wineries, and even a ski resort deep into the territory. After all, although the region is small, it is strategically significant: located a mere 31 miles to the west of Damascus, the Golan Heights overlooks southern Lebanon, northern Israel, and much of southern Syria.
Now Israel has gone a step further and called for the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to formally recognize the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Given the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital in December 2017 along with the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, Israel’s hard-line government has reason to believe that the moment is advantageous. Indeed, Israel is presenting recognition of the Golan as a natural extension of the Jerusalem declaration, as demonstrated by a subcommittee hearing held in July brazenly entitled “A New Horizon in U.S.-Israel Relations: From an American Embassy in Jerusalem to Potential Recognition of Israeli Sovereignty over the Golan Heights.”
So far, the Trump administration has sent mixed signals in reply. In early September, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman remarked, “I cannot imagine, frankly, a circumstance where the Golan Heights is not a part of Israel forever.” But just a month earlier, National Security Adviser John Bolton saidthere was “no discussion” of recognition.
How Washington decides this issue could have far-reaching repercussions. Although U.S. recognition of the occupied Golan Heights would have no international legality, it would threaten regional stability and further entrench Israel’s chokehold on the occupied territories. But even beyond the geopolitical implications and the matter of regional security, there is still a more fundamental issue at stake: the Golan Heights has an abundance of natural resources—particularly water—and its occupation has become an invaluable asset to Israel over the last several decades. Above all else, Israel’s concerns about resource security are driving its push for U.S. recognition of the Golan Heights as its territory.
In recent years, the Golan has made international headlines largely in the context of the bloody, seven-year-long civil war in Syria. The war has periodically spilled over into the Golan, where Israeli forces shot down a Syrian plane in July and, allegedly, a Russian one in September. Those who would like to see the Golan remain in Israeli hands, such as Ambassador Friedman and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, argue that the warring parties, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iran, Hezbollah, and the Islamic State (or ISIS),all in different ways pose an existential threat to Israel, which needs the Golan Heights as a buffer zone for its self-defense. Michael Doran, a member of the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, has expressed the same concerns, asking, “What is the Syria that will best contribute to international peace and stability? Anyone truly concerned with this question must conclude that the Golan Heights should remain in Israeli hands.”
Friedman, Kurtzer, Doran, and others who take this position prioritize Israeli security over the security of the rest of the region and fail to consider the 130,000 Syrians who were forcibly transferred or displaced at the start of the Israeli occupation of the Golan in 1967, or the treatment of the estimated 26,000 Syrians who remained behind, mostly of the Druze sect.
Now, Israel is using the turmoil in neighboring Syria as a pretext to entrench its claims of sovereignty over the Golan’s prized water resources. The Golan Heights offers access to two major water systems: the drainage basin of the Jordan River and its tributaries to the west, and Lake Tiberias and the Yarmuk River to the south. The Golan also has more than 200 springs and scores of streams, many of which Israel impounds in reservoirs for settler use. Since 1984, Israel has built more than eight deep wells to access Syrian aquifers. Combined, these wells have extracted more than 2.6 billion gallons of water, which is mostly pumped to settlements for unfettered access.
More than one-third of Israel's water supply comes from the Golan Heights.
Today, more than one-third of Israel’s water supply comes from the Golan Heights. The territory is extraordinarily fertile. As long ago as 1968, Israel enacted a series of laws, beginning with Military Order 120, that gave it exclusive access to the Golan’s water resources. One such law stipulated that owning land does not entail owning the water on or under it. The effect of such legislation has been particularly deleterious for the local Arab farmers, who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. They lost access to the water originating from their own farmland and are obliged instead to purchase water from Israeli companies, which charge them high prices and will sell them only enough to meet low quotas.
The Golan is not the only area where Israel exercises such control over water. Throughout the occupied Palestinian territories, Israeli hegemony over water resources has resulted in severe water inequality for Palestinians. Nearly 90 percent of aquifers in the West Bank are diverted to Israelis, leaving Palestinians with access to less than 10 percent of their water. Moreover, Israel seizes Palestinians’ water resources to the extent that 599,901 settlers use six times more water than the whole Palestinian population in the West Bank—some 2.86 million. Meanwhile, in Gaza, over 97 percent of Gaza’s water is unfit for human consumption, leading to a spike in serious waterborne and foodborne illnesses, such as gastroenteritis, severe diarrhea, salmonella, and typhoid fever. Israelis have unlimited water.
Israel is the 19th most water-stressed country in the world, and the situation is likely to worsen as the effects of climate change take hold. Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin remarked in 1995 that “the greatest danger Israel has to face in the negotiations with Syria is the possibility of losing control over the Golan Heights’ water resources.” As water becomes an increasingly valuable commodity in global politics and markets and water wars have already been predicted in the region, it is clear that water-related issues will be pivotal in any future negotiations between Israel and Syria.
The abundant water in the Golan lies at the core of Israeli claims that it needs the Golan Heights for its security, as well at the base of Israeli demands for recognition. Permanently occupying this territory promises Israel resource security—an alluring possibility in an increasingly resource-scarce planet. Matters are further complicated by conflicting reports about vast quantities of oil in the Golan Heights. In a bid to compete as a regional energy provider, Israel approved exploratory drilling in 2014. The drilling, in an area covering around one-third of the Golan Heights, directly threatens the delicate and diverse ecosystem in the Golan Heights and the quality of its groundwater.
For Israel, recognition would mean that the Israeli government would continue to exploit the Golan’s water resources as it has done for decades, at the expense of the 26,000 Syrians who live there and without external criticism. Meanwhile, Syrians stand to lose. Syrians have been trapped in political limbo for the best part of half a century, and recognition would dash hopes of family reunification and a return to the Golan. Israel’s policy of family separation, in effect since 1967, constitutes a violation of human rights and international humanitarian law. Recognition would also markedly shift the balance of power in the region, further diminishing prospects of peace between Israel and Syria.
For over six months now, powerful pro-Israel lobbyists such as Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, and Israeli policymakers such as Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, have been pressing the United States to recognize Israeli ownership of the Golan Heights.
But U.S. accession to this demand is by no means inevitable. As Washington weighs its options, policymakers would do well to remember that behind the talk of security interests lies a deeper desire to control the natural resources of the territory Israel occupies.