Recognising Israel's claim to the occupied Golan Heights isn't about security, but capitalism

Recognising Israel's claim to the occupied Golan Heights isn't about security, but capitalism
Comment: Extraction of oil reserves and control over soon-to-be-privatised water resources are at the heart of the attempt to legitimise Israel's military occupation of the Golan, writes Thomas Essel.
8 min read
26 Mar, 2019
'Dealmaker' Trump cares more about business than security or politics [Getty]

President Donald Trump's call for the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights continues his administration's habit of breaking with long-standing US foreign policy tradition towards Israeli-occupied territories.

Traditionally, US foreign policy regarding the occupied territories has paid lip service to international law and superficially supported peace talks based on Israeli withdrawals. In practice, however, the US has demonstrated unwavering diplomatic and military support for the Israeli government. Rarely, if ever, has the US pressured Israel in any meaningful way to abandon its colonialist policies. De facto US policy has thus been to tacitly support the entrenchment of Israeli occupation in the West Bank and the Golan Heights for over 50 years.

Trump's Israel policy therefore shatters the tradition of silence and doublespeak. It is not a reversal of policy, as it has been portrayed in the media, but rather it is an overt acknowledgment of existing policy.

In fact, Trump's tweet and subsequent pronouncement is not the policy bombshell it has been made out to be. The Golan Heights issue has been rapidly coming to a head, especially as the war in Syria has been winding down. Further exacerbating the issue is the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is embroiled in a tough reelection campaign.

US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital coupled with US recognition of Israel's annexation of the Golan is likely to be a major political boon for the embattled Netanyahu.

In July 2018, a subcommittee of the US House of Representatives met to explore options related to the Golan. Of the five witnesses who testified, only one, Ambassador David Kurtzer, counseled against recognition.

In February, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced a bill that would make recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan official US policy.

The language of 'security'

Percolating throughout the discussion of the Golan Heights issue is the discourse of security.

Trump's initial tweet on the subject said the move was "of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!"

Senator Rubio's bill states "it is in the United States national security interest to ensure that Israel retains control of the Golan Heights…" Rubio's reasoning is that "Israel's security from attacks from Syria and Lebanon cannot be assured without Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights".

Morton Klein's hyperbolic testimony to the aforementioned House subcommittee overtly made the link between US security interests and Israeli sovereignty in the Golan, stating "Israel is our front line in the war to defeat radical Islamist terror; it is surely in America's self-interest to ensure that Israel maintains and enhances her ability to defend herself".

Even those who oppose recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan frame the issue in terms of security

Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, went so far as to claim that recognition of the Golan as Israeli territory was in the security interests "of the Syrian people themselves, who benefit from the stability that the Golan buffer fosters" [emphasis mine].

Even those who oppose recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan frame the issue in terms of security. Specifically, they argue that doing so would leave Israel more exposed to threats. Michael Young of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, for example, argues that pointing the spotlight on the Golan Heights would serve only to further incense radical Islamist groups.

The ubiquity of security discourse around the issue of sovereignty in the Golan Heights - indeed, around most policy issues related to Israel - leaves an obvious question hiding in plain sight: is this really about security?

All this talk of security tends to ignore a rather obvious point: Israel already controls the Golan Heights. Legal recognition or not changes nothing on the ground. And, just like in the West Bank, Israel already has significant infrastructure in the Golan which means it will likely never leave. Currently, there are around 27,000 Israelis living in about 34 settlements across the Golan Heights.

This means that sovereignty is not a security issue, but rather a political issue. The conflation of security issues with political issues is a common tactic used by politicians to achieve policy goals. Israeli and US conflation of sovereignty over in the Golan Heights with security should be immediately recognisable as analogous with Donald Trump's use of security discourse to promote his wall on the US border with Mexico. It is a solution to a threat that doesn't exist.  

It should, of course, be recognised that in the past Israel has faced existential security threats emanating from the Golan. Prior to its occupation by Israel, Syria used the commanding position to shell Israeli towns and military positions.

Israel seized the territory when it preemptively started the Six Day War in 1967.

However, 1967 is not 2019. Israel no longer faces existential security threats from its Arab neighbours - none of which has the military capacity to actually win a war against the qualitatively superior Israeli military. Nor do those Arab neighbours have the political will, nor, for that matter, a reason to go to war with Israel.

Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia regularly cooperate with Israel on security issues and the former two have signed peace treaties with Tel Aviv.

Peace with Lebanon is stable - Lebanon couldn't dream of fighting Israel anyway - though there still exists a threat from Hizballah. However, the occupation of the Golan Heights does nothing to counter the Hizballah threat, which is more akin to a nuisance, and official recognition of sovereignty would do nothing to change that fact.

Thus, what began as a security issue has morphed into something else. Times have changed and so should our understanding of Israeli interests in the Golan Heights.

Water, gas and tourism

Israel's interest in the Golan Heights no longer stems from military security, but rather economic concerns.

Primary among these is water. Israel's ever-expanding population and dry climate makes access to fresh water a constant and growing concern. Runoff from rain in the Golan Heights feeds the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River, which are major sources of Israeli water supply. Israel receives approximately a third of its water from the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights region.

Energy issues are also on the minds of both Israeli policy makers and US corporate interests. In 2015, US-based energy corporation Genie Energy, through its Israeli subsidiary Afek, discovered potentially billions of barrels worth of oil in the Golan Heights. This is a major boon for the prospect of Israeli energy independence and corporate profits.

However, as The Economist noted in 2015, "the biggest problems [related to the exploitation of oil reserves in the Golan]… revolve around the issue of sovereignty". Exploiting the natural resources in the Golan, which is considered occupied territory, is a violation of international law. However, a simple change in policy fixes this legitimacy issue. Recognising the Golan Heights as Israeli territory means that it is no longer occupied.

We should understand sovereignty in the Golan Heights as a political and economic issue bearing all the hallmarks of neoliberal capitalism

By recognising the Israeli claim, the US manipulates international law to legitimise its own interests in exploiting the Golan oil fields. While this move is extraordinarily transparent in its purpose, US global hegemony renders this complaint a moot point. Other states will either actively fall in line with the US position or passively accept the new status quo, just as they did with the Jerusalem embassy move. International law is whatever the United States wants it to be.

A far-less-appreciated dimension in Israeli policy towards the Golan Heights is the region's value as a tourist destination. A 2018 report by Al-Marsad, a human rights non-profit operating in the Golan Heights, highlighted how the Israeli Ministry of Tourism uses the attractiveness of the Golan - skiing, wineries, historical landmarks, and beautiful vistas - as a way to normalise the Israeli occupation.

Tourism is a major industry in Israel, accounting for about 2.6 percent of Israel's GDP in 2017 and providing thousands of jobs for Israeli citizens.

Whose security?

Despite what Israeli and American politicians would have us believe, Israeli interest in the Golan Heights no longer revolves around protecting itself from existential security threats, and US interest has nothing to do with ensuring that a vital regional ally is protected from attack. Even a cursory understanding of modern Middle East politics and the military capabilities of Israel's Arab neighbours makes the claim that Israel is surrounded by hostile forces hell-bent on its destruction laughable.

We should understand sovereignty in the Golan Heights as a political and economic issue bearing all the hallmarks of neoliberal capitalism, most notably extractive and exploitative state policies towards natural resources that promote and protect private sector interests like the oil and tourism industries.

At present, there are plans to partially privatise Mekorot, the Israeli national water carrier, which provides 90 percent of the water service in Israel. This move will save the Israeli government millions of dollars while simultaneously providing enormous profits to private shareholders.

US backing of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights ensures that resource supply and exploitation - and the profits reaped from it - will not face any serious international challenges.

When politicians cite security concerns as reasons to adopt certain policies, it is prudent to ask the simple question "security for whom?"

Recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights has no appreciable effect on US or Israeli national security interests. It does, however, provide a screen of legitimacy to neoliberal economic interests and further entrenches US global hegemony.

Thomas Essel is a political activist and writer based in San Diego currently finishing his MA in International Security. He has been published by The Springfield News-Leader and Danthropology, among others, discussing politics, religion and history. 

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.