Trump’s Pointless Provocation on the Golan
President Trump’s proposed reversal of decades of American policy on the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights has more to do with Israeli politics than American interests — or good sense. On Thursday, he announced on Twitter that the United States should recognize Israeli sovereignty in the disputed Golan Heights, on Israel’s border with Syria, even though no other country has done so. The United Nations has declared that official annexation of the territory would violate international law.
New York Times reports in its article Trump’s Pointless Provocation on the Golan that Mr. Trump created a controversy where none needed to exist. Israel has been under no pressure to end the occupation of the Golan, which began during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War with the seizure of some 400 square miles by Israeli troops.
But Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is facing a tough re-election fight, and he has pleaded with Mr. Trump to make the move. The tweet bolsters his claim that he can best keep Israel safe because of his close ties to the White House.
Support for Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights would also give Israel’s right-wing parties an opening to argue for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank. Such a move would crush any remaining hope of Palestinian statehood and put Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy at risk.
Even the liberal group Americans for Peace Now, while opposing Mr. Trump’s policy shift, said that Israel has legitimate reasons to maintain its hold on the Golan Heights for now, because “Syria is in shambles, swarming with belligerent extremist groups, and Iran has gained a foothold there in the course of Syria’s horrific civil war.”
For decades, the United Nations and the United States refused to officially recognize Israel’s seizure of the Golan Heights or the West Bank, on the ground that the boundaries of Israel and any new Palestinian state must be negotiated. In 1981, when Israel claimed to have annexed the Golan Heights, the Reagan administration retaliated by suspending a strategic cooperation agreement with Israel. The two countries reached another military cooperation agreement two years later.
But since the Syrian war began in 2011, with Iranian and Russian military forces intervening in support of the Assad regime, pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights has dissipated.
As has become a pattern, there was no sign that the new policy went through any formal review before the president announced it. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, visiting Jerusalem in a show of support for Mr. Netanyahu before the April 9 election, appeared surprised by the timing of Mr. Trump’s tweet. Hours before, Mr. Pompeo had told journalists that America’s policy on the Golan Heights had not changed.
Recognition of Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights was the latest in a series of decisions, like moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and abrogating the Iran nuclear deal, that demonstrated the administration’s unwavering support for Israel’s conservative government. Mr. Trump fancies himself a tough negotiator, but he has given away this valuable American diplomatic leverage, built up by previous presidents across decades, in exchange for nothing of benefit to the United States.
Mr. Netanyahu, his Israeli supporters and pro-Netanyahu members of Congress applauded the decision. Mr. Netanyahu will be in Washington next week, where he will meet with Mr. Trump and attend the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying group.
Unsurprisingly, the European Union, once America’s closest ally on Middle East issues, announced that it would not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Leaders in Syria and Iran condemned Mr. Trump’s decision, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey warned that it brought the region to the brink of crisis. Syria vowed to take the territory back.
Effectively endorsing the forcible expropriation of Syrian land will certainly make it harder for the United States to continue credibly opposing Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
In general, though, the response was more muted than it might have been in the past, before Arab leaders decided they were more interested in having Israel as a partner against Iran.
Mr. Trump, facing his own re-election in 2020, no doubt hopes his decision will build support among his base of pro-Israel evangelicals and American Jews. It’s more likely to exacerbate growing divisions among Americans over his administration’s unwavering support for Mr. Netanyahu and its damaging effect on American interests.