Israel's Golan Heights Policies and the Future of Nagorno-Karabakh

The Azerbaijani leadership and its Baku-controlled media have remained completely silent on multiple declarations, beginning this past April, regarding the state of Israel's intent to officially annex the Golan Heights and surrounding areas.  Baku should be deeply concerned because the arguments Israel uses to support such annexation pale in contrast with those already in place on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-inhabited region that lies between the Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The Golan Heights

Israel claims Greater Golan was part of ancient Israel, repeats refrains of “we will never give it bac,” “the world must get used to the new reality,” and “who do we give it back to?”  None of these hold water in diplomatic circles.  However, the reality is that the Golan Heights was captured from Syria in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and its inhabitants and settlers are subject to Israeli civil and military laws; yet, most importantly, it has remained relatively peaceful.

Negotiations, reported as secret, have taken place between Syria and Israel over the status of the Golan Heights, the latest being sometime in 2010.  Negotiations were cut off when Syria plunged into civil war. Israel was willing to return the Golan Heights to Syria in “exchange for specific security guarantees, including a demonstration that the Assad government would stop acting as an Iranian proxy.” This is significant because it demonstrates that Israel captured Golan, kept it under its jurisdiction, and would indeed return it for strategic security reasons.  It is unknown what the fate of its Jewish population will be; perhaps they would return to Israel.  Conversely today, a full annexation of Golan, Israel argues, also secures its northeastern border.


The region of Nagorno-Karabakh was arbitrarily placed under Azerbaijani jurisdiction by Stalin in 1921 after it was fought over both politically and militarily during and after WWI.  The local population, which had always been majority Armenian by a wide margin, resisted this decision.  Just prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union, in December of 1991, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region (or Oblast, officially designated as such in mid-1923) overwhelmingly voted in favor of not remaining under Azerbaijani jurisdiction in full legal compliance with Soviet law.  After declaring independence and fighting a war imposed by Azerbaijan, a truce was negotiated in May 1994.  Nagorno-Karabakh has conducted its own affairs ever since then, although aided by the Republic of Armenia.  Since 1994, border areas between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan have witnessed persistent periodic shelling, sniper fire, and cross-border attacks.

Negotiations have been ongoing between Azerbaijan and Armenia.  Armenia represents the interests of Nagorno-Karabakh because Baku does not recognize the existence of Nagorno-Karabakh as a political entity.  Negotiations have been in a permanent stalemate because the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh claim the right of self-determination and Azerbaijan claims inviolability of its international borders.

Land for Peace

The land offered in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh was all but two western areas that connect Nagorno-Karabakh directly with Armenia, releasing the remaining eastern and southern areas to Azerbaijan if the latter recognized the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh.  The result would be a people having achieved self-determination.

Historical or biblical arguments do not constitute a legally recognized basis for land claims.  Reparatory demands or indigenous self-determination are better arguments, although not sufficient by themselves to unilaterally constitute a change in international political status.  Reparatory claims were used to redraw boundaries in post-WWII Europe.  Factors in favor of indigenous self-determination are more associated with big power interests.  For example, the dismemberment of the Yugoslav Federation eventually resulted in the separation of Kosovo from Serbian jurisdiction, which was designated its own state.  Kosovo has only partial international recognition and its legitimacy is not recognized by Serbia, although Serbia has started a process of normalization.

However, today is 2016 and much has changed in the five years since Israel and Syria ended their Golan negotiations.  If Israel is successful in officially incorporating the Golan Heights, it would create a precedent for those peoples and regions that are in a state of uncertainty, under pressure from prevailing political forces.  Israel's public relations campaign for a full Golan annexation acceptance is sure to draw attention.  

This should surely worry the authorities in Baku who have thus far remained silent.  Baku is silent because Israel purchases about half its crude oil supply from Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan has purchased just under $2B worth of Israeli high technology drones, support infrastructure, and limited manufacturing licensing of additional technologies.  This creates a dilemma for official Baku, who call the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh separatists, or worse, while selling crude oil to Israel, which seemingly has less of an international legal basis for the incorporation of the Golan Heights than does Nagorno-Karabakh for its self-determination.  During Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations, Azerbaijan might continue to demand jurisdiction over the entire region, but Armenia would note the precedent set in the annexation of the Golan Heights – a clear violability of established borders (Baku’s central argument) – one that Baku never protested.

The accompanied chart provides a relative comparison of arguments used and issues raised with respect to the self-determination of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights.  The chart is not intended to be exhaustive.  The "Advantage" column entries are based on how existing realities contribute to the "Argument" or "Issue.”  A “None” means one case has no particular advantage over the other.  While not a strict mathematical endeavor, the case of Nagorno-Karabakh appears stronger than that of an official Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights and surrounding lands.


Argument or Issue

Golan Heights (GH)

Nagorno-Karabakh (NK)



Historical Claim 1

Early as 953 BCE, land of Israel 1

Recently discovered 7000 year old tooth has exact DNA match with today’s Armenians of NK 2



Historical Claim 2 (currently known)

At least 25 synagogues excavated 1

9+ Forts/Castles 3, 30 Churches/Monasteries 4




~50K 5, 5.1

~147 (2013) 6



Focus population

~20k Jewish 5, 5.1

~147K Armenian 6



Land area

~1200 15

~4457 7



Population/sq km

42 (total) 21 (Jewish)

34 Armenian



Continuous ethnic plurality, last thousand plus years

Jewish, Arab, then Druze (Jewish re-settlement post 1967)




Not included in expected territory

Not part of 1923 British Palestine Mandate 1

Soviets rescinded Armenian jurisdiction, ordered Azerbaijani jurisdiction over NK in 1921 7



Referendum on region’s disposition

No. GH was occupied militarily from the 1967 war

Yes. Dec 1991: overwhelmingly in favor of independence from Azerbaijan. Vote was in accordance with USSR law. War fought until May 1994 7.1



Israeli or Armenian law extended into regions

Yes. 1981 Knesset enacted the Golan Heights Law extending Israel’s  civil “law, jurisdiction and administration”8

No. NK has its own laws and constitution 7.1



UN resolutions regarding activity

UNSC Res. 497: dismissed Israel's control of the Golan Heights as illegitimate 9


UNSC Res. 822: withdrawal of local occupying forces from Kelbajar … 10


UNSC Res. 853: ...calls on withdrawal of local Armenian troops from Agdam … 11


UNSC Res. 874: implement Security Council resolutions 822 (1993) and 853 (1993)...12


UNSC Res. 884: ...Condemns the recent violations of the cease-fire established between the parties ... calls upon the Gov't of Armenia to use its influence to achieve compliance by NagornoKarabakhArmenians13




International Recognition


(Non-state) New South Wales, Basque Parliament, various US states



Unilateral associated state recognition

Israel: Yes, stated its annexation intention on April 2016 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22

Armenia: No. NK declared independence September 2, 19916



Declaring international community recognize new reality

Israel regarding Golan in 201614

Armenia in support of NK



Abandon fixation with artificial borders drawn a century ago

Israel regarding Golan in 2016 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22

Armenia in support of NK 23



Land will never be returned

Israel regarding Golan in 2016 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22

NK 24



Land for Peace offered

Yes 25

Yes 26

See article text


Fighting between affected sides





Refugees generated

131K Syrian citizens 27

50K from NK only. Entire conflict generated over a million refugees28



Local defense force


Indigenous NK population with defense arrangements with Armenia



International “norms”

Military acquisition

Sovereign self-determination



Acceptance campaign

Widespread PR campaign capability

Limited PR capability hampered by Azerbaijani hydrocarbon interests and lobbying



Strategic justification

Military, Syrian civil war, (potential hydrocarbon deposits29

Self-determination and security for an indigenous population30


David Davidian is an Adjunct Lecturer at the American University of Armenia.  He has spent over a decade in technical intelligence analysis at major high technology firms.

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