Kurtzer Argues Against American Recognition of Israeli Sovereignty over the Golan Heights

Jul 25 2018
By Arva Hassonjee
Source Woodrow Wilson School

The Golan Heights is a strategically significant area that Israel occupied from Syria as a result of the 1967 war. Before the war, Syrian forces had shelled Israeli farmers and towns in the valley below the Heights. Golan’s status is to be decided by agreement on the basis of United Nations Resolution 242, adopted in 1967.

In February 2017, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly urged the United States to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. It is thought that Netanyahu based his request on a 1981 Israeli law that extended Israeli law, jurisdiction and administration over Golan.

Testifying before the Congressional Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on National Security July 17, Amb. Daniel Kurtzer, the S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, said that U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty at this time would not serve U.S. national interests and would not materially enhance Israeli security.

Kurtzer said it is important to maintain the existing U.S. policy that extends deep support for Israel’s security concerns and maintains the status quo with respect to the Golan Heights themselves.

Kurtzer spent nearly three decades in the United States Foreign Service, including serving as ambassador to Egypt and ambassador to Israel. He retired in 2005 with the rank of career-minister. Today, he teaches courses on the Arab-Israeli conflict and Middle East policy.

Kurtzer noted that the late Prime Minister Rabin and four of his five successors – Prime Ministers Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert – all conducted open or secret talks with Syria. Kurtzer said that throughout this period “it was understood and accepted by the Government of Israel itself that Golan Heights was territory whose future status was subject to the conclusion of Israeli-Syrian negotiations.”

Kurtzer does not support efforts to press for the resumption of peace talks between Israel and Syria at this time. He explained, “the Syrian crisis is far from over” and the country is still years away from stability.

Most Arab countries do not contest Israeli control of Golan, Kurtzer said, nor do they argue against Israel’s legitimate proactive measures to secure its citizens from attacks by Syrian forces, Iran and Iranian proxies and Hezbollah. As such, Kurtzer questioned the wisdom of raising the sovereignty question now, which might lead Arab countries to state their opposition and change the agenda which, he said, must remain on the aggressive actions of Syria, Iran and Russia.

Moreover, Kurtzer reminded the Committee that the United States has a longstanding commitment to supporting the territorial integrity of all states, regardless of our relations with them. “Syria has a long way to go before it can reconstruct its politics, society … but the Syrian case does not offer a justification for changing American policy on this crucial principle,” he said.

Kurtzer concluded his remarks by arguing that when the possibility of peace between Israel and Syria emerges, “Israel will be in a position to make its decision regarding the ultimate status of the Golan Heights.” As of now, there is not a reason to draw attention to a “current non-issue,” he said.

Instead of focusing on the Golan Heights, the United State and Israel should work on a strategy to advance the national security interests of both countries in the Middle East, Kurtzer concluded.

In addition to Kurtzer, the testimonies included:

  • Michael Doran, Ph.D., Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute                   
  • Ambassador Dore Gold, Ph.D., President, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs      
  • Eugene Kontorovich, Professor, Northwestern University School of Law  
  • Mr. Morton Klein, President, Zionist Organization of America

View the full hearing here.