Trump Must Not Recognize Israeli Annexation of Golan Heights

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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.

Dire Consequences

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

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Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at www.mitchellplitnick.com. You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.

SHOW 54 COMMENTS

54 Comments

  1. YR, You are just babbling. The 1981 law effectively annexed Golan Heights. No one in the Golan Heights (including local Druse) are complaining. Not sure why it is your business. The US should recognize it because the US should support our allies.

    As far as the dictum about the acquisition of territory by war, I have thoroughly discredited that as essentially a myth only invoked against Israel. My discussion is contained in a comment to one other recent articles on this blog.

  2. JW: “YR, You are just babbling.”

    *sigh*

    This is a truism: a state’s own domestic law extends only to the territory of that state i.e. there is no extra-territoriality when it comes to domestic law.

    This is also a truism: a state’s legislature CAN’T grant itself that extra-territorial jurisdiction, for the simple reason that it Does Not Have The Jurisdiction Needed To Grant Itself That Jurisdiction.

    Even a moments thought will tell you that this is an obvious truth.

    JW: “The 1981 law effectively annexed Golan Heights.”

    Ladies and Gentlemen, Jeffrey’s weasel-words of the day are “effectively annexed”.

    You can’t ANNEX (note: not “effectively annex”) territory simply by passing a piece of domestic legislation that says that henceforth your domestic legislation now applies to an occupied territory.

    Doing that is nothing but a magician’s conjuring trick: the equivalent of Israeli insisting that henceforth it will treat this territory **as** **if** it owned the territory, without actually getting around to claiming that it **does** own the territory.

    Honestly, Jeffrey, you claim to be a lawyer. You must understand the sleight of hand that Israel is pulling with the Golan Heights Law.

    What Israel needs to do is:
    a) Announce that it HAS annexed the Golan Heights, therefore
    b) BECAUSE of that annexation then the Golan is now Israeli territory, and therefore
    c) BECAUSE the Golan is now Israeli territory then, gosh!, Israeli domestic law now applies there.

    The Golan Heights Law simply jumps straight to Step (3) , and because of that it is a legal absurdity. It amounts to the Knesset anointing itself with a legal authority that it does not have the legal authority to anoint itself with.

  3. JW: “As far as the dictum about the acquisition of territory by war, I have thoroughly discredited that as essentially a myth only invoked against Israel.”

    Oh, please, put it away.

    The prohibition on the acquisition of territory by war was first introduced into international law by the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, were enshrined in the UN Charter of 1945, and confirmed into case law by the Nuremburg Tribunals and Far East Tribunals of 1946.

    All of which predate the state of Israel, and all of which have established this as a legal principle that has been applied far and wide over many, many decades.

    It is THE cornerstone of post-WW2 humanitarian law i.e. if you seize a territory by force of arms then you are the OCCUPIER, nothing more.

    There is no elevator clause in that arrangement, Jeffrey: it remains an occupied territory, and you remain an occupying power, and they remain an occupied people, and that remains true until such time as the occupation ends and it remains true even if the occupier refuses to leave.

  4. YR, So what. Wikipedia: “In 1981, Israel passed the Golan Heights Law,[14] which applied Israeli “laws, jurisdiction and administration” to the Golan Heights. Although the law in effect annexed the territory to Israel, it did not explicitly spell out the formal annexation.”

    No weasel words. Just reality. What are you going to do, sue Israel? Move to declare the Golan Heights Law “unconstitutional.”

    Are you asking Israel to formally annex Golan? I doubt it. Maybe they did it this way to allow Syria to “save face.”

    If you would feel better, the Golan is one place where the residents could be allowed to vote and most likely would vote for Israeli annexation.

    Rather than quibble, why not make the argument for why the property should be returned to Syria and when that would happen? I submit the answer is “no reason because Syria forfeited it due to decades of military aggression against Israel” and “never.”

  5. Mr Wilens, you wrote, “The US should recognize it because the US should support our allies.” This is not a valid reason. There might be other reasons for recognition, but this one is in the category of, “it’s the right thing to do”.

    As I noted in my previous comment, this is a very slippery slope, internationally. The precedent it would generate would be difficult to contain. There are plenty of US allies that may decide or demand things and the US would not be automatically bound to support them, simply due to alliances.

    What would the US do if a state that was friendly to the US, perhaps not at the level of Israel, encouraged a vote in a province in a neighboring country and it voted 100% to join that state? Why must the US be automatically bound to recognize that vote, even if the state is a US ally and that province engaged in an act of democratic self-determination? Well … it wouldn’t.

    Yerevan, Armenia

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