by Mitchell Plitnick
There was a lot to digest in the joint press conference held by US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week. Most of the focus has been on the apparent walk-back Trump made from the long-term and bipartisan US policy supporting a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and Netanyahu’s shocking apologia for Trump’s refusal to address the sharp rise in antisemitism since his election.
Another point of real significance has therefore been squeezed out of the spotlight: Netanyahu’s proposal that the US recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Netanyahu said that Trump was not surprised by the request. This suggests that the idea is at least being considered in Washington. That should also not surprise us. The situation in Syria clearly precludes any agreement on the Golan issue in the near term, and the US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the small patch of land would be a huge political coup for Netanyahu.
As with most things concerning Israel, the devil is in the details. The Golan is not often discussed these days. The bloody conflict in Syria has eliminated any talk of a “Syrian track” for diplomacy involving Israel. It is, therefore, reasonable to wonder how much serious consideration this question has even gotten from the soberer officials in the Trump administration, let alone from other, more passionate, voices.
Any realistic look at this question, however, leads to the conclusion that there is no good reason for the United States to agree to Netanyahu’s request. It accomplishes nothing. And it can have extremely dangerous ramifications.
Hauser’s Flawed Analysis
In the pages of the Israeli daily, Haaretz, the former secretary of Netanyahu’s cabinet, Zvi Hauser, makes an unconvincing case for recognition. To counter Iran’s regional ambitions and as a bulwark against an expanding ISIS, Hauser argues, Israel needs a permanent buffer with Syria. “Above all, reality on the ground is stronger than past fixations,” he writes. “There is no horizon on the Golan Heights but the Israeli one. Neither radical Sunni factions and organizations nor an Iran-Hezbollah-Assad foothold in the Kinneret will allow for stabilizing the region and rehabilitating it.”
The problem with this argument is that it makes the case for maintaining Israeli control over the Golan not for making the annexation permanent. In a climate where no one is seriously talking about a Syria-Israel deal, recognizing the Israeli annexation of the Golan does nothing to change the calculus Hauser is discussing.
Hauser also claims that “moderate Sunni axis states won’t fight a move that means exacting a territorial price from the Shi’ite axis of evil.” In this he is simply wrong.
While the leadership in the states Hauser refers to (although “moderate” is an odd term to apply to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other dictatorships, whose sole claim to moderation is their status as US and sometimes covert Israeli allies) might indeed privately welcome a blow to the Assad regime and its partners in Tehran, they cannot do anything but publicly oppose an American imprimatur on the Israeli annexation of land taken in the 1967 war. Even if they were passionately opposed to the move, their options would be limited at best.
US recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan would immediately enflame passions throughout the region and would be the most powerful recruitment tool yet for the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other, similarly-minded groups. The Arab world would see this annexation as conclusive evidence of the “imperialist designs” the United States has on the region and the “Zionist regime’s” aggression. It would also reinforce the rationale for fighting Assad, the only leader so weak that he has permanently lost sovereign territory to Israel (recall that the West Bank and Gaza were occupied by Jordan and Egypt, respectively, from 1948-1967).
But Hauser does eventually get around to the crux of the matter. “Israel is in an optimal time and place to make historical achievements consisting mainly of revoking the ‘sanctity’ of the ‘67 borders, internalizing the need to change borders in the area and redrafting them according to current reality,” he writes.
The “internalizing” he speaks of is not, of course, referring to Israelis, but to the rest of the world.
Indeed, US recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan would set an historic precedent and would represent such an enormous achievement for Netanyahu that his current political troubles would vanish. But it would do a lot more than that.
As Hauser notes, US recognition would formally break the international consensus on the inadmissibility of acquiring land by conquest, something that has been the bedrock of international law and diplomacy since the formation of the United Nations. It has also been the foundation of the two-state solution and the various partition plans that preceded it.
Palestinians generally ignore the Golan because the non-Israeli population there is Syrian, not Palestinian. But US recognition will force them to take the Golan into account in their strategy, further complicating an already hopelessly tangled mess. More importantly, it will also mean that the Palestinians will likely harden their stance, leading to increased support for violent remedies to what will then be an even more hopeless situation of occupation.
Russia may well veto de jure annexation. Trump, whether one believes he is in troubling cahoots with Vladimir Putin or merely wants to improve relations with the Eurasian bear, is unlikely to grant Netanyahu’s request over Russian objections. If Russian acquiesces, Putin will want a quid pro quo. But Putin will not simply accept a US move that harms his allies in Damascus and Tehran just to bolster Netanyahu’s position.
Netanyahu is likely to pursue U.S. recognition if Trump does not reject the idea outright, as Barack Obama did in 2015. Just by raising the request, he scores political points and the grand prize is just too great for him to ignore. Proponents of international law and others deeply concerned about the region might be vocal in opposing this idea, but the Golan is not going to stir the passions the West Bank does. Netanyahu’s proposal, however, is very dangerous, and the public should be aware of the potential consequences.
Photo of Golan Heights courtesy of Wikimedia Commons