by Aaron Southlea
On his recent visit to Israel, Jared Kushner presented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a State Department map showing the occupied Golan Heights as part of Israel. President Donald Trump left a short message on the map, scribbling “nice” adjacent to the occupied Golan. A popular photo of Netanyahu glancing at the map, taken hours after his failure to form a coalition government and as Kushner clutches at support for his dying “deal of the century,” is almost lighthearted. What it speaks to, however, is not. It speaks to the disintegrating U.S. reputation and Trump’s utter failure to grasp geopolitical realities.
Trump’s “nice” evidences his ignorance of the implications of his proclamation recognizing the occupied Golan as Israel. In fact, Trump described his Golan decision as spontaneous after a “quickie” history lesson. His administration has since fumbled opportunities to defend the move, most recently in a Wall Street Journal piece that misunderstands basic concepts of international law. Nevertheless, the Trump administration continues to celebrate the move, most recently participating in a hastily organized ceremony christening a new illegal settlement in the region as “Trump Heights.”
Both Israel and the United States will almost certainly reuse the flawed justifications for Trump’s proclamation as Netanyahu eyes annexing Israeli settlements in the West Bank with Trump administration support. Thus, it is important to understand the overlooked implications of Trump’s Golan decision for U.S. interests and how unilateral annexation will only harm the United States and Israel.
Trump’s proclamation first and foremost hurts U.S. interests by showing that the United States can no longer be an honest broker in the Middle East. A clear indication of America’s declining reputation has been the uniform global rejection of Trump’s move.
This is especially concerning for the United States as Russia, Iran, and Turkey are successfully expanding their authority across the region. Russia, for instance, has publicly reiterated its willingness to host new talks between Israel and Palestine without “preconditions.” Palestinian Foreign Minister Rian Al-Malki has already agreed to such talks at a time when his government has cut all ties with the Trump administration. Russia was also just invited to participate in a “unprecedented” trilateral meeting with the United States and Israel later this month.
Any U.S. peace plan in Israel-Palestine—after the Golan decision, the U.S. embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and U.S. defunding of Palestinian aid programs—will be dead on arrival. At the same time, alternative plans from U.S. rivals are gaining traction and expanding the influence of U.S. adversaries on the most important geopolitical issues.
Second, Trump’s decision threatens Israel’s security. The United States has long called for the status of the occupied Golan to be determined by a peace deal between Israel and Syria. Such a deal could ensure Israel’s safety from an adversarial neighbor, similar to the stability created by the Israel-Egypt “land for peace” swap.
Conversely, Trump’s unilateral action in the occupied Golan undermines Israel’s security. Indeed, Syria responded to Trump’s decision by threatening an attack on Israel. Netanyahu would argue, as his government did in a report alleging dangerous Hezbollah activity immediately before Trump’s move, that a new threat already existed. Ex-Israeli military officials, however, immediately dispelled this allegation, claiming that Netanyahu was fear-mongering for political gain. Continued Israeli aggression in Syria drums up even more fear. Yet, prior to Israeli airstrikes, the occupied Golan’s ceasefire line was considered Israel’s safest “border.”
Trump’s Golan decision has also given the world a reason to support Bashar al-Assad in Syria, offering a war criminal international legitimacy. It is no coincidence that Assad launched an offensive on Idlib just weeks after receiving international support as the victim of Trump’s Golan move.
Third, Trump’s proclamation shows that the United States no longer upholds its legal responsibilities. Trump’s move violates a core principle of international law: the prohibition on territorial acquisition by force. In fact, the United States established this principle as a cornerstone of international law in 1941 with the Atlantic Charter. A few years after the Charter, the United Nations was founded on this same principle to avoid another catastrophe like World War II. Violating this principle undermines the entire concept of world order.
Trump’s decision additionally violates United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 497, both of which the United States supported and both of which are binding. It also violates Common Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions, which the Supreme Court has found to be enforceable domestically, and the International Court of Justice’s “Wall Decision.” Under international human rights law, it validates Israel’s systemic human rights abuses in the occupied Golan, including institutionalized discrimination, land expropriation, and cultural genocide.
Trump’s supporters in Congress are now calling for the government to “conduct joint projects with Israel on the Golan Heights” and recognize the occupied Golan as part of Israel for any future act of Congress. These actions, if taken, would legitimize the continuous U.S. undermining of its legal obligations. This dangerous precedent destroys comity, undercutting any future U.S. attempt to invoke international law.
In reality, Trump’s proclamation may be “nice” for his friend Netanyahu, but the new State Department map of Israel should be a dire warning. Trump will cast U.S. interests and credibility aside to obliterate international order and renege on America’s legal obligations.
Aaron Southlea is a legal research and advisor for organizations working in international human rights law, humanitarian law and rule of law development in the Middle East and East Africa. Aaron works with Al-Marsad–Arab Human Rights Centre in Golan Heights, the only human rights organization operating in the occupied Golan Heights.