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Why Israeli Sovereignty Over the Golan Heights Matters

  • Critics of the U.S. decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights misread the legal significance of the preamble to UN Security Council Resolution 242, from November 1967, which contains a reference to the principle of the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.”

  • Legal scholars have drawn a distinction between the seizure of territory in wars of aggression, which is illegal, and the seizure of territory by a state exercising its lawful right of self-defense.

  • Writing in the American Journal of International Law in 1970, Stephen Schwebel, who became the legal adviser to the U.S. Department of State and then President of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, wrote about the legal significance of this difference. He also cited the great British scholar Elihu Lauterpacht, who argued that “territorial change cannot properly take place as a result of the unlawful use of force.”

  • What about cases of the lawful use of force? In the aftermath of the Second World War, significant territorial changes were implemented in Europe. For example, Germany lost considerable land to Poland and to the Soviet Union. It was clear that the UN Charter recognized the right of states to use force in self-defense, which is the case of Israel’s entry into the Golan Heights.

  • In 1967, when the Soviet Union undertook to obtain condemnation of Israel in the UN Security Council as the aggressor in the Six-Day War, it failed, losing the vote by 11 to 4. The Soviets then went to the General Assembly and failed yet again. It was clear for the member states of both UN bodies that Israel had acted in self-defense.

  • It is also not true that the Golan decision represents a major shift in U.S. policy. In 1975, President Gerald Ford wrote to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that the U.S. “will give great weight to Israel’s position that any peace agreement be predicated on Israel’s remaining on the Golan Heights.”

  • In 1991, Secretary of State James Baker wrote a new letter to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir reconfirming the Ford letter. In 1996, Secretary of State Warren Christopher wrote to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recommitting the U.S. yet again to the Ford letter. See More...

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