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On 21 March 2019, President Donald Trump announced that the United States (US) should recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a disputed strip of territory that Israel seized from Syria during the Six Day War against its Arab neighbours in 1967.
Reporters and analysts saw the announcement, which Trump made on Twitter, as a gesture to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is fighting multiple corruption charges while campaigning for re-election on 9 April.
A week after his announcement, Trump signed a presidential order to make the stance official during Netanyahu’s visit to the White House. Netanyahu was reportedly looking over the president’s shoulder when Trump told him, “This was a long time in the making.” Trump then handed Netanyahu the pen he used for his signature and said: “Give this to the people of Israel.”
Like Trump’s earlier decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, acknowledging Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights was widely condemned by the international community. The European Union said that it does not recognize the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, nor does Russia, Turkey or the Arab League.
They also noted that Trump’s decision contravenes international law. The United Nations (UN) has refused to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights and West Bank, arguing that the boundaries of Israel and a Palestinian state must be agreed upon diplomatically. This was also the US’ policy for decades, even under its most conservative leaders.
Following the 1967 war, the UN Security Council passed the so-called ‘Land for Peace’ Resolution, which aimed to persuade Israel to exchange occupied territory for peace and recognition with its Arab neighbours. The plan was backed by all major powers, including the US.
After Israel effectively annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, the Reagan administration punished its ally by suspending a bilateral strategic cooperation agreement. The UN also passed Resolution 497, which condemned the annexation of Syrian territory and declared it a violation of international law.
Neither measure dissuaded Israel, which continues to expand settlements in the Golan Heights and administer the territory like it is part of its own country.
Before the 1967 war, approximately 150,000 Syrians lived in the Golan Heights, but most of the population was uprooted by the conflict. Today, 25,000 Druze Arabs, who remain Syrian citizens, and 20,000 Israeli Jewish settlers live in the occupied territory.
Trump’s move helps Israel maintain the status quo. Yet while there were no negotiations to determine the fate of the Golan Heights, Trump’s decision is widely perceived as an impediment to regional peace.
The president also risks jeopardizing his relationship with Arab leaders, whose endorsements he needs for his long-anticipated Middle East peace plan. For the moment, the shared fear of Iran and important business deals keep these relationships intact.
Some former diplomats told The New York Times that Trump’s decision will likely embolden other heads of states who are occupying land.
“Putin will use this as a pretext to justify Russia’s annexation of Crimea,” said Martin Indyk, a former peace negotiator and American ambassador to Israel. “The Israeli right will use it as a pretext for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank. It is a truly gratuitous move by Trump.”
While that may be so, it is the Golan Heights that are currently the center of attention. Israel and Syria have engaged in several rounds of negotiations over the territory, including secret talks in 2010. The talks were reportedly going to result in a full Israeli withdrawal, but the Syrian uprising in 2011 halted all negotiations.
Now Israel has little incentive to give up the territory. Dina Badie, an associate professor of politics and international studies at Center College in the US, wrote that the Golan Heights serve as a major military asset for both Syria and Israel. But in the eyes of Israel, and many republicans in the US Senate, the territory acts as a ‘buffer zone’ for Israel against Iran and Hezbollah.
The land also has abundant water resources and fertile land. In fact, Israel extracts a third of its water from the Golan Heights. Even more enticing is the prospect of finding oil. Exploratory drill-ing suggests that the territory’s reservoirs could potentially yield billions of barrels.
Despite these advantages, Trump’s recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights could backfire. Badie, for one, wrote that the decision undermines America’s claim of being an honest broker in geopolitics.
Trump’s overture also rewrites the script of American policy towards Israel. Aluf Ben, a column-ist for the Israeli daily Haaretz, wrote that US support has always been conditional and often dependent on Israel at least attempting to negotiate with the Palestinians and Arab states as part of the peace process.
That was the arrangement that led to Netanyahu receiving generous military aid from Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama. In return, Netanyahu agreed not to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Whatever is the new norm, Trump’s declaration has only aggravated tensions in the Middle East, not defused them. The rhetoric from Israel’s enemies and allies following the announcement was particularly telling.
The US envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, claimed that Trump merely recognized the reality on the ground, which was that Israel could not risk rogue actors operating in the Golan Heights now that Syria is, in his words, a failed state. “To give up [the Golan] would endanger Israel’s very existence,” he said.
Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, had a different perspective. He said that the US’ decision is a stark reminder to Arabs and Muslims that neither America nor Israel can be trusted in diplomacy.
“The US and Israel will offer you handshakes, but no matter how much you kowtow, they will still steal your lands,” he said.