Say what you will about Donald Trump, he has forever changed the rules governing Israel’s conflict with its Arab neighbors.
Trump has reportedly decided that the United States will recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights, an 1,800-square kilometer slice of territory that was conquered by Israel in the June 1967 war. The announcement may come when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Washington next week, where he will appear live at the annual AIPAC confab.
Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights in 1967 brought the Israel Defense Forces to within 69 kilometers of Damascus and sent more than 100,000 Syrians fleeing from the vast volcanic plateau that had been their home.
In the first hours of the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, surprise Syrian advances led Israel to briefly consider using nuclear weapons to stop what some Israeli leaders considered to be a threat to Israel’s very existence. By the war’s end, Israel had recovered the plateau and the UN had unanimously reaffirmed “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” in Security Council resolution 338.
On that basis, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger negotiated a separation of forces agreement, which has kept an uneasy peace for more than four decades. The 1974 agreement locked in a ceasefire, limited Israeli and Syrian forces, and created a UN-patrolled buffer zone that separated the antagonists. The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) still mans observer posts along the frontier.
The international community, Washington included, refused to recognize a unilateral Israel declaration in December 1981 annexing the Golan. It thus had limited practical effect, on the ground or diplomatically.
But Israel remained in control of the plateau and continued to populate the region with more than 20,000 settlers residing in more than 30 settlements.
All diplomatic efforts by the United States and others since have pushed for an Israeli withdrawal back to the “June 4, 1967 border,” that is, Israel’s retreat from all territories it forcefully occupied in 1967. Notwithstanding its annexation, Israel too accepted this principle. But the inability to agree on the details of withdrawal was the prime obstacle to an agreement on the “land for peace” model of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
Israel continued to engage diplomatically with Syria until the second term of the Obama administration. Obama’s failure to close the file on Israel’s occupation of the Golan and the West Bank then opened the door to Trump’s diplomatic gate crashing.
Trump’s blockbuster announcement itself will have little immediate practical effect. The renewal of diplomacy towards a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement has never been a more distant prospect. Israel will continue to settle. And Syria will see these moves as yet another indication of Washington’s inveterate opposition to Syrian and Arab independence.
Recognizing Israel’s land grab not only destroys the diplomatic system governing Israel-Syrian relations, it also undermines a basic principle of the current crisis in Syria, where U.S. support for Syria’s territorial integrity will be subject to ever greater doubt. Trump’s decision will not go unnoticed in Ankara, which is now occupying parts of Syria, and looks to expand its occupation east of the Euphrates. Vladimir Putin, casting a wary eye on Crimea, annexed five years ago, can be forgiven a wry smile.
Netanyahu, like all world leaders, had reason to wonder whether the mercurial Trump would be an asset or a threat. That question has, at least for the time being, been answered.
Amid the Purim holiday season that celebrates the downfall of the Persians who persecuted the Jews, Trump appears as a messiah ready to answer Netanyahu’s most fervent prayers. His secretary of state, who has moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, now breaks another taboo by visiting the Western (Wailing) Wall in East Jerusalem, creating a potentially lethal diplomatic and religious fait accompli.
Is there any aspect of Israel’s right-wing agenda that the Trump administration has not accommodated?
Netanyahu, in talks with Pompeo, boasts that there are “no limitations to Israel’s freedom of action” in the campaign against Iran’s presence in Syria.
Indeed, Trump has adopted Bibi’s narrative on Iran without restraint. Recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan is a reflection of the shared anti-Iran campaign more than any other consideration.
This alignment of views is not limited to the rarified diplomatic arena. Trump and Netanyahu are close political allies, determined to cement their bond. In the weeks before the April elections in Israel, Trump is giving Bibi a real lift. Netanyahu gets to bask in the praise bestowed by Pompeo. He accompanies the secretary of state to the Wailing Wall and celebrates the opening of the rebranded U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. No one in Israel will dare raise their voice to say that the U.S. action on the Golan is a bad idea. Ditto for Jerusalem.
Bibi is prepared to return the favor when he visits Washington next week, assisting Trump in his efforts to turn Jewish-American voters into Trump Republicans.
With his moves on the Golan, Trump sees himself as acting alone and above the world stage. But the myopic assumption that Washington can command both its policy and those of its antagonists is not only misplaced but dangerous.
It is reckless to assume there will be no price to pay for destroying the international consensus established in 1974, a consensus that admittedly has failed to achieve a peace agreement but which nonetheless has provided a critical foundation for the diplomatic system that has kept an uneasy peace for almost 50 years. As a consequence, the long-agreed upon view that such moves could only be addressed in the context of a final deal between the parties has been turned on its head. Rather than reflect the outcome of agreement, America’s moves risk undermining any prospect of agreement. Nobody knows what diplomatic system—other than the improvised patchwork produced by the American fait accompli—will emerge in its place.
Geoffrey Aronson is founder and chairman of The Mortons Group and a non-resident fellow of the Middle East Institute.