Proposal of Referendum in Golan Heights a Contentious Issue in Arab League

By Danial Asyraaf Idris, Al Jazeera English

Gulf states, Sunni states, Israel, and Syria firmly reject proposal by Palestine and Iran to hold a democratic referendum in the Golan Heights

Discussions in the Arab League today (June 1) were centered around the possibility of conducting a democratic referendum in the disputed Golan Heights territory, which was suggested by the delegates of Palestine, Iran, and Lebanon. This hotly contested proposal saw fierce opposition by the delegates of the UAE, Syria, Israel, Algeria and others.

The proposal was part of a draft resolution sponsored by the delegates of Palestine, Iran, and Lebanon. The resolution details a five-pronged approach to conducting a regional democratic referendum in the Golan Heights conducted by the UN. Residents of the Golan Heights would be voting in the referendum to determine whether the Golan Heights should ultimately belong to Israel or Syria.

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The delegates of Palestine, Iran, and Lebanon (left to right) introduce their contentious draft resolution to the League

In response to concerns expressed by the delegate of Syria that the referendum might go in Israel’s favour, the delegate of Palestine argued that the residents of the Golan Heights would almost definitely choose to be under Syrian rule due to multiple factors: their historical ties and ideological beliefs, anger over decades of oppression by Israel, and the fact that two-thirds of those living in the Golan Heights are Arabs.

Taking another approach, the delegate of Iran attempted to convince the delegate of Syria that it was in Syria’s best interest to involve the UN, who could apply international pressure on Israel to respect the results of the referendum should Syria win. He also argued that in holding a democratic referendum, the Syrian government would gain the moral high ground.

Hezbollah and Iran have been constructing underground military infrastructure in the Golan Heights in preparation for a potential military confrontation against Israel. So far, Israel has been able to limit their activity in the region. However, the delegate of Israel expressed fears that should the Golan Heights be returned to Syria, Hezbollah and Iran would be allowed to entrench offensive weaponry and bases in the region to attack Israel.

For Israel, it is a matter of national security.

Separately, Israel and Syria had been discussing a possible alternative to the democratic referendum. A possible peace settlement was put on the table, proposing that Syria would agree to limit financial support for Hezbollah and restrict their activities in the Golan Heights, while Israel would withdraw support for the militant organisation, al-Nusra Front, a Sunni terrorist organisation currently fighting the Assad government in the Syrian Civil War. This would come in exchange for Syria regaining sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

However, even if such a peace agreement is successfully brokered, this is unlikely to deter the militant groups in question as they do not depend entirely on sponsor states for funding and have their own independent agendas.

The delegate of Iran argued that this peace agreement would leave Syria  worse off as they are forced to concede more than Israel. He warned Syria that Israel was manipulating Syria for her own interests by persuading Syria not to accept a referendum.

When the ability of the UN was questioned by the delegate of the UAE, the delegate of Iran retorted, “The UN is the best we’ve got. Doubting the UN is unproductive at best.”

However, a majority of states in the Arab League opposed this proposal.

The delegate of Algeria expressed concern that was a possibility of the referendum concluding in favour of Israel and that the League was leaving too much to chance. Since the League had already condemned Israel for its occupation of the Golan Heights and recognised that it was rightfully Syria’s, should Israel prevail in the referendum, the referendum would undermine Syria’s claim to the Golan Heights.

The delegate of Syria herself rejected the idea of a referendum, making it clear to the League that Syrian sovereignty over the Golan Heights was not to be doubted in any form.

She quoted President Assad, saying, “The land is an issue of sovereignty, dignity and rights, which are never to be subjected to compromise nor abandoning.”

The delegate of Israel backed Syria in its rejection of the referendum, agreeing to Syria’s claim to have rightful sovereignty over the Golan Heights. It opposed the referendum as it would most likely lose the referendum and would not get the security concessions from Syria, which were promised in the peace agreement.

Israel has considered withdrawing from the Golan Heights in the past but has been immobilized by uncertainty over public support for such a move, given a majority of its citizens oppose withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Regardless of whether the country accepts a referendum or cedes control to Syria through a peace deal, any action in favour of Syria would certainly polarize its citizens, The delegate of Israel believed that the peace deal would cause less backlash as Israel would be able to extract concessions from Syria in the process.

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The delegate of Syria firmly rebukes Palestine’s proposal for referendum in the Golan Heights

It seems unlikely that UN pressure will be able to force Israel to comply with the results of the referendum, seeing as Israel has previously ignored numerous UN resolutions, including those that condemned illegal Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory.

Also, the proposed referendum principally concedes that Israel has an equally legitimate claim to the region as it is given equal footing with Syria as a choice in the ballot, which in the context of Israel’s unlawful occupation of the territory, undermines Syria’s sovereignty.

As to the feasibility of conducting the referendum, while not discussed in great detail by the League, it is an important consideration that needs to be taken into account. The Golan Heights is a region in a state of war and control is split between the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), Syria, Israel and other militants. Attempting to gain full control of the Golan Heights to administer a referendum is next to impossible in such a volatile region.

The council session ended before the delegates formally voted on the resolution, and we will report on the results of the vote after it has been conducted.

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