What Do Israelis think About the Golan Heights?

April 1, 2019


William Cubbison, Israel Democracy Institute, March 31, 2019

https://en.idi.org.il/articles/26456

With permission, read full article at Israel Democracy Institute.

On March 25th 2019, President Trump signed an order for the United States’ official recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. This article surveys Israeli public opinion regarding this issue, and its reactions to this announcement. Surveys have shown a consistently high level of support among Jewish Israelis for keeping the Golan Heights, and while there is some disagreement – Jews across the political spectrum support President Trump’s decision.

Public Opinion – Historical Overview

For decades, the majority of Israelis have opposed the idea of returning the Golan Heights to Syrian control In January 1979, 80% of Jewish Israelis were not prepared to return any part of the Golan Heights, and only 5% were in favor of returning most or all of its territory.1

From August to October 1994, the Peace Index survey, conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University’  included a question on respondents’ willingness to return the Golan Heights if such an act would be linked to  a full peace treaty between Israel and Syria, including diplomatic relations, demilitarization, and international security guarantees.  Even under this generous scenario, 43-45% of Jewish Israelis opposed giving back any part of the Golan Heights.

Negotiations between Syria and Israel were ended in 1996, and resumed in December 1999 and January 2000. In the wake of this restart, the Peace Index once again included a question on Israelis’ willingness to return the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace treaty. In January 2000 54% of Jewish Israelis were opposed to exchanging the Golan Heights for a peace treaty. This viewpoint was relatively stable through 2011, with opposition being very high among Jewish Israelis, and low among Arab Israelis.2

Return Golan Heights to Syria in Exchange for a Peace Treaty (Opposed, Jews and Arabs, %):

2012 Survey: Negotiations and Civil War

In October 2012, it was revealed that just prior to the Arab Spring and the beginning t of the Syrian Civil War, Israel and Syria had been negotiating a peace deal, which would have likely included a return of the Golan Heights. In December 2012, he Peace Index survey asked Israelis about returning the Golan Heights. Respondents were asked whether it was possible to return the Golan Heights to Syria – if there were appropriate security arrangements put in place. This survey took place in this context and at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, alongside international efforts to end the Civil War, but 18 months before ISIS had declared the founding of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

At that time, 77% of Israelis responded that it was not possible for Israel to return the Golan Heights, although there was a very large split between Jews and Arabs. Among Jewish Israelis, only 16% were in favor of returning the Golan, while, while 61% of Arab Israelis thought it should be returned.

Return the Golan Heights (Jews and Arabs, %):

Among Jewish Israelis, the majority – among all political blocs – opposed returning the Golan Heights. Opposition among the Right was highest (96%), while it was lowest among the Left, though a majority was still opposed (53%).

Return the Golan Heights (Jews by political bloc, %):

2016 Survey: Netanyahu’s declaration

In early 2016, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that Israel would never give up the Golan Heights. The April 2016 Peace Index surveyed public opinion on the Prime Minister’s statement. Respondents were asked whether this statement was necessary because of the discussions about the future of Syria post-civil war, or whether it unnecessarily brought the Golan back into these international discussions. Israelis were split on this question, with 47% saying it was necessary and 45% saying that it was unnecessary. Among Jewish Israelis there was slightly more support, with 51% indicating that it was necessary and 42% saying that it was not, compared to 30% of Arab Israelis indicating that it was necessary and 60% that it was not.

2019 Survey: US policy change

In the Israel Democracy Institute’s March 2019 Pre-Election Survey, respondents were asked about whether the US recognition of Israeli sovereignty was helpful or harmful to Israel’s interests. A majority of Jews felt that it was helpful to Israel’s interests. Among Arab Israelis, a plurality (31%) said they did not know, but among those who had an opinion the largest group was comprised of those who said it would be harmful to Israel’s interests (28%).

Is the US recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan helpful or harmful? (Jews and Arabs, %):

Among Jewish Israelis, the Right strongly believes that the decision is helpful to Israel’s vital interests (74%), along with a plurality of both the Left (40%) and the Center (42%). Significantly, only 25% of Jews on the Left indicated that the decision is harmful to Israel’s interests.

Is the US recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan helpful or harmful? (Jews by political bloc, %):

Election Effects

The decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty in the Golan came just weeks before the election.  In the March 2019 Pre-Election Survey respondents were asked whether they thought that the decision would strengthen or harm Netanyahu’s standing.

Jews across the political spectrum believe that the decision strengthens Netanyahu’s standing in the election. Among the Right, 74% believe this to be the case, as do 54% of the Center and 59% of the Left.

Does US the recognition strengthen or weaken Netanyahu in the election? (Jews by political bloc, %):

Conclusion

Overall, support among Jewish Israelis for keeping the Golan Heights has been consistently high for decades. Even when presented with a scenario of a peace treaty with full diplomatic relations and security guarantees, most were unwilling to give up the Golan Heights even before the recent Syrian Civil War and the atrocities committed by the Assad regime.

Arab Israelis are split, and a plurality is ambivalent, about whether this decision is to the benefit or the detriment of Israeli interests. Jewish Israelis are strongly supportive of the decision, and believe that it will help Netanyahu in the election.