The enigmatic story of the historically disputed Golan Heights

Part 2 of 2

Our informal World Health Organization (WHO) humanitarian plan for the Golan Heights, introduced in Part 1 of this series of columns, mapped out areas for local enterprise including wine-growing, fresh water supplies, ski trails, protected wilderness, hotels and eco-friendly tourism, especially activities such as bird-watching and ornithological research, all under demilitarized international control. These ideas were worth pursuing no matter who ultimately owned or ruled the Golan Heights.

As we at WHO had no remit to deal with the high-level political aspect, we simply shared our draft environmental plan with academicians, biologists and others who could review the plan, make comments, and pass their views upwards through their respective national political channels.

The technical responses were almost entirely positive, with the result that the governments of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and, yes, Israel were quick to sign on.   Even South Africa, hearing about it, was supportive of the environmental protection plan, given that so many migratory birds fly along the Golan Heights, particularly raptors (birds of prey), and continue via the Rift Valley and East Africa to winter in Southern Africa.

The question was, which country should take the lead in promoting the environmental plan, and eventually sponsor the overall peace agreement that would result? It was realized that neither the United States nor Israel  would be perceived as a fair and balanced sponsor for this work, so it was felt that another country should take the lead. King Hussein of Jordan then offered that his country would do so. As to the parallel environmental protection plan,  one of the princesses of Jordan offered to take on the ambassadorial role to promote the plan.

The United States at the time was actually more “fair and balanced” on Israel-Palestine questions than had previously been the case. President Jimmy Carter had sponsored the Camp David Accords of 1979. President Bill Clinton had welcomed the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993 and 1995, dealing with the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Two-State Solution.  The Oslo Peace Accord was signed by both Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel, and Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

The fact that in 1995 virtually every Israeli academic and environmental agency and institution that saw the parallel environmental protection plan for the Golan Heights strongly supported it and reported favorably upwards to the government in Tel Aviv was highly promising. Sure enough, Yitzhak Rabin signed on immediately. It was time for diplomats and politicians to take over, and publicly announce a conference to adopt a comprehensive International Peace Treaty, covering the status of all territories including Sinai, the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

But again, it must be said, going for peace in the Middle East can be a complex and risky business. It was late October of 1995. Shortly after giving both the proposed environmental plan and the comprehensive Peace Treaty his blessing, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on Nov. 4, 1995. By whom ?  By a young, ignorant, ultra-conservative nut case. Why? Because Rabin had signed the Oslo Peace Accords.

The senseless assassination of Yitzhak Rabin scuttled both the environmental plan and the comprehensive International Peace Treaty. The Israelis, Palestinians and other groups, such as Iran-supported Hezbollah, went back to killing each other, mainly civilians, using guns, bombs, chemicals, rockets, tanks, aircraft and even fly-your-own drones. There was no chance of resolving any disputes over Palestinian territories, let alone the Golan Heights.

The Arab Spring of 2011 led to a full-scale civil war in Syria. It was first Sunni versus Shia, and then everyone else. The false-Islamic terrorist group ISIS stepped in hoping to establish a new caliphate in the land of Syria. Trying to save his Ba’athist regime, Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad began using chemical weapons to slaughter his own resisting people, mostly innocent civilian women and children. The United States came in on the side of the resisting population, against both ISIS and Assad. Then Russia and Turkey came in on the side of Assad. The Kurds were left squeezed in between, and were denied the homeland they had been promised after the close of World War I in 1918. Russian, Turkish and U.S. aircraft and gun batteries exchanged gunfire. Israel’s main concern was to defeat Hezbollah. So, the enigmatic question of the Golan Heights was almost completely forgotten.

All was forgotten, that is, until one morning in 2019 when President Donald Trump woke up and decided to give the occupied Golan Heights to Israel.  After all, why not? Trump had already squashed the Two-State Solution, so why not give up the Golan Heights as well? And by not consulting U.S. State Department, Homeland Security, academic experts, Congress or anyone else, there was little chance of receiving contrary advice. The entire matter of the Golan Heights enigma seemed much simpler to Trump  than the more complex story I have told here. So he just did it.


Anthony Piel is a former director and general legal counsel of the World Health Organization.