Jewish settler Refael Morris stands at an observation point overlooking the West Bank village of Duma, near Yishuv Hadaat, an unauthorized Jewish settler outpost.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As soon as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Sunday that the Golan Heights will remain part of Israel forever, voices on the Right, including within his own party, began encouraging him to make a similar declaration about the West Bank.
Yet Netanyahu will never make such a declaration.
Why? According to international law, the statuses of the Golan Heights and of the West Bank are essentially identical. They are either disputed or occupied territories (depending on which side of the debate you are on) over which Israel took control in 1967, and are potentially part of negotiations to settle the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Israel’s official position under international law has been consistent that it is prepared to return some, but not all, territories, such as the return of Sinai to Egypt, the withdrawal from Gaza, and Likud, Labor and Kadima prime ministers’ negotiations over the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
How much land would be returned, when and under what security conditions has been heavily in dispute as well as the status of east Jerusalem, and currently, very few political officials are discussing actually making any transfers.
However, under Israeli domestic law, there has been a significant difference for some time.
In 1981, Israel under prime minister Menachem Begin extended its law to the Golan.
It went one step further with east Jerusalem, fully annexing it. It never took either action regarding the West Bank.
At the time, Begin was believed to have made the controversial move regarding the Golan, but not the West Bank, not only on the basis of ideology, but also in light of Syria opposing negotiations with Israel even if the Palestinians eventually negotiated, to test peace with Egypt and to assuage settlers having to leave Sinai.
Also, extending Israeli law to the Golan would not mean extending Israeli law to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, as it would have in the West Bank.
That means that since 1981, IDF military orders have governed the West Bank, while Israeli law has governed the Golan. That, along with the large number of Palestinians in the West Bank, has made the two areas’ interactions with Israeli society quite different.
The Oslo Accords also are still functioning in the West Bank, implying some sort of territorial compromise, whereas no similar bilateral instrument has come into existence regarding the Golan.
The ongoing Syrian civil war, the proximity of Islamic State to Israel’s borders and what many predict will be the break-up of Syria highlight the type of neighbor that borders the Golan, as opposed to Israel’s easterly and more orderly neighbor, Jordan.
While several prime ministers, including Netanyahu in 1998 and 2010, made efforts to reach peace with Syria by relinquishing all or part of the Golan, there have been no similar efforts since 2011 and no one is even discussing it as a possibility with the civil war raging.
In contrast, there have been multiple Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations since then and unrelenting international pressure to restart negotiations, even as the issue is temporarily off the domestic agenda in Israel as long as the so-called third intifada continues.
So under international law, if Netanyahu is ready to declare the Golan to be part of Israel forever, legally there is no difference between the Golan and the West Bank.
But the demographic, cultural, historical and current geopolitical differences are massive.
And so while Netanyahu may be prepared to take a new globally controversial stand on the international law status of the Golan, the chances he will do so regarding the West Bank are close to zero.