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Grabbing the Golan Heights

Terry H. Schwadron

March 24, 2019

To anyone who has stood on the Golan Heights overlooking the fields and kibbutzim of northern Israel, the strategic and security value of ownership of the heights is obvious. Hulks of blown artillery pieces still litter the area, reminders of how easy it has been since 1967 for foes to lob destructive shells into the valleys below.

Still, the land, about 400 square miles, is part of Syria, a weakened Syria, but not Israel, though Israel has occupied the area for decades. The Golan Heights were always part of the hoped-for swap of land for peace towards a two-state, permanent solution to problems in the Middle East.

No more. Much to the delight of most Israelis, the United States is giving the green light to taking over the territories in the name of security. Hey, at least this unilateral action has some sense of reason — as compared with issuing, then overturning sanctions against North Korea just because Trump thinks he has a relationship with his counterpart.

President Trump just declared that the United States should recognize Israel’s authority over the heights, a move that at once cements pre-election day help for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, overturns American policy and is guaranteed to be another poke in the eye for Palestinians and, in general, Arab relations.

It is a move that while welcome in Israel, is filled with odd wrinkles that invite more trouble in the long run. For example, why not the West Bank and Gaza too; why not insist on ownership of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem?

Syria’s Foreign Ministry said the move would increase Syria’s determination to recover the territory occupied by Israel “by all available means” and Russia and Iran both said it violated international law. Turkey, a U.S. ally, said it risked creating a new Middle East crisis. Palestinians merely said no. As The Washington Post reported, “It also raised concerns that confrontations along the cease-fire line could escalate.”

Among other things, the move also underscores the right of Israel to take territory gained through conflict to call its own. It is not clear what exactly has to happen for anyone’s maps to change legally, but this is exactly the sort of move that roils international relations and makes Trump (and Netanyahu) look like diplomatic cowboys, shooting first and asking necessary questions later.

A minute ago, when Russia did the same thing in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, we called foul, as has most of the United Nations general assembly. When China declares islands in the South China Sea, we scream that this is an abridgement of international rights. In the international sphere, Americans have stood for national borders and negotiated settlements.

According to The New York Times, the announcement — once again by tweet — “came after persistent pressure from Netanyahu, a close political ally who is fighting for his survival in the election scheduled for April 9, and has invoked his friendship with the American president as a prime argument for staying in office” and seemed to surprise Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, who is in Israel in advance of visit by Netanyahu to the White House next week. For the record, Trump denied he was trying to help Netanyahu.

That’s right, Trump, under investigation for helping a foreign nation to interfere with U.S. elections, is involved just weeks before Israel’s election in promoting Netanyahu’s chances.

Netanyahu, who cherishes the comparisons and closeness with Trump, is in a fight for his political life against criminal charges for bribery and bad behavior, and is reaching for a big, assertive international play to boost his chances for reelection.

No one seems to be discussing the biggest loser in all this: Trump’s move makes the United States a player in the outcome of Middle East dissension by driving a stake into the heart of any two-state solution. In its place is an apparent drive to just declare Israel in ownership of all occupied lands, with a new government that includes association with a political party that wants to denude domestic Arabs of any rights, and that paves the way, almost literally, for increased Jewish settlement of Arab lands without compensation.

Of course, the move also gives Trump some benefits, too. From a security point of view, it emboldens efforts to resist Iran, which has been infiltrating a disrupted Syria. From a partisan political view, it gives Trump a win to record on behalf of a stronger Israel, earning points with evangelical Christians and Israel-supportive Jews before his own reelection campaign. And it underscores the position he has taken as a diplomatic wild card who will run counter to the calls of the international community.

The move will simultaneously undermine U.S. attempts to serve as relatively neutral moderator in the Middle East and will distance the United States from Arabs.

As the Times noted, “As a practical matter, Trump’s announcement changes little. There is no negotiation underway on the status of the Golan Heights, nor any expectation that Israel is going to withdraw from it. The United States could veto any United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the move.But as a symbolic step, the decision is momentous — underlining Trump’s willingness to flout diplomatic orthodoxy and shake up a debate over the Middle East that has changed little since the 1970s.”

Unlike the president’s earlier decision to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which was mandated by Congress and fulfilled a promise he made during the 2016 presidential campaign — one made by previous presidential candidates — this latest move was both a first for an American president and almost purely a gesture to Netanyahu.

The United Nations and the United States have steadfastly refused to recognize Israel’s seizure of the Golan Heights or the West Bank, arguing that the contours of Israel and a new Palestinian state must be negotiated diplomatically. In 1981, when Israel effectively annexed the Golan Heights, the Reagan administration retaliated by suspending a strategic cooperation agreement between the United States and Israel. Israel, however, has continued to administer the territory as part of its country, and the Jewish population there has grown with the expansion of Israeli settlements. Since the outbreak of war in Syria in 2011, and the intervention of Iran and Russia, there has been little international pressure on Israel to pull out of land widely viewed as critical to its security.

Somehow, once again, it feels as if foreign affairs call for evaluation and balance that is more than a midday tweet, more than an expression of help for a friend, with an understanding of all the moving parts.


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