by Mitchell Plitnick
You wouldn’t expect Twitter to be the outlet for sound policy announcements, and Donald Trump doesn’t disappoint. He uses the social media platform as his alternative to facing the media in press conferences, avoiding questions about his impulsive and often ill-considered decisions.
The latest example occurred on Thursday, when Trump took to Twitter to announce that he intended to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the western part of the Golan Heights, territory captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 war. It is unclear from Trump’s words whether he was actually recognizing Israel’s sovereignty or simply broadcasting his intent to do so.
In either case, his decision is foolhardy. It is unnecessary for either security or geo-strategic reasons. Trump is turning a fundamental principle of international law on its head just to help reelect his friend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
History of Occupation
Although sporadic Zionist settlement has been there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Golan Heights were never heavily populated by Jewish immigrants and the entire area became part of the French mandate over Syria. After the 1948 war created Israel, the two countries agreed to establish a de-militarized zone (DMZ) in part of the Golan. The DMZ was a site of frequent low-level clashes between Israeli and Syrian forces, as each side tried to lay claim to parts of the territory by cultivating bits of it or by diverting its water resources.
Each side also tried repeatedly to provoke the other, with Israel often driving vehicles eastward or starting new settlements in the DMZ, knowing Syria would respond by shooting, to which Israel would counter with military force. On other occasions—which would become more frequent in the months preceding the 1967 war—Syria would take advantage of the elevated position it held in the Golan to lob artillery down on towns in the north of Israel. By 1967, air skirmishes were also becoming more frequent.
Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 war, and most of the Syrian population fled or were driven out. Where over 100,000 Syrians had been, only 7,000 from the Druze Syrian community remained. The story of the Golan refugees was largely erased from history, partly due to Israeli efforts and partly because the refugees were resettled in Syria. As a result, the occupation of the Golan Heights has not had the same global resonance as that of the Palestinian territories. But it is still an occupation.
Just days after the war, Israel’s cabinet voted to exchange the territory it captured for a peace treaty with Syria, an offer it rescinded in 1968 after the Arab League’s Khartoum resolution, which declared, “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel.” Still, the idea of trading the Golan for a peace deal arose several times in the 1990s and 2000s, although politically such a deal became increasingly complicated for both Israel and Syria.
In 1981, Israel extended its laws over the entire area it captured from Syria in 1967, which amounted to a de facto annexation. From that time on, Israel offered citizenship to the Syrian residents of the area. Few took the offer at first, but in recent years, more of them have done so, although they still represent a distinct minority—a bit over 20 percent—of Druze in the Golan.
No other country recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, including the United States. For a long time, the hope was that an agreement between Israel and Syria could materialize from a land-for-peace formula. But every time the prospect loomed, opposition in Israel swelled. During the early years of this century, half the cars and houses in Israel seemed to have stickers reading, in Hebrew, “The People are with the Golan.” In Syria and other neighboring lands, the proposed deal was no more popular than the peace treaties with Israel that Jordan and Egypt had negotiated, and Palestinians feared that yet another regional antagonist of Israel’s would make peace with her and leave the occupation intact.
When the uprising and subsequent civil war in Syria broke out, the Golan became a popular anti-peace point not only for Benjamin Netanyahu and other opponents of a Palestinian state, but for centrist Israelis as well. Imagine, they all said, what it would be like if we had given back the Golan.
The “Israeli” Golan Heights
The argument was questionable and blatantly self-serving. Obviously, Israel had not maintained its hold on the Golan because it foresaw a cataclysm on the scale of the Syrian civil war. Moreover, Israel became involved in that war, clandestinely, so it was obviously not being all that cautious. It responded disproportionately even to accidental spillovers of hostilities. The high ground of the Golan Heights had long since lost much of its military significance in the face of a massive Israeli advantage in satellite and air power. It is far from certain that the situation would have been any worse for Israel if it did not control the western part of the Golan.
But the Syrian disaster did have a profound effect on diplomacy. All pressure on Israel to find a way to return the Golan and settle its conflict with Syria evaporated. No one was going to push for negotiations over the territory with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s legitimacy in question.
Even today, with the war essentially over, Syria must rebuild not only its governmental infrastructure but its physical infrastructure. Iran’s ongoing presence in Syria as well as Assad’s own brutality certainly makes it unlikely that the Arab states, much less the United States or even Europe, are going to press Israel into talks about the Golan in the foreseeable future.
Recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan changes nothing on the ground in the short term. Israel already has full control of the territory.
So Why Trump’s Move Now?
For Trump, this is not about Israel’s security concerns. It is about helping his friend and mentor, Netanyahu, win the election on April 9. It’s unlikely that he’s even considering anything beyond that. But it’s a fair bet that others in both Jerusalem and Washington see some benefits in this decision.
Netanyahu is already using Trump’s support as a booster in his campaign, and he hopes to use it to stave off criminal charges for bribery, fraud, and breach of the public trust. Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem is a prominent feather in Netanyahu’s cap, and it has helped him maintain about the same level of public support as he had before the Israeli attorney general announced his intention to indict the prime minister. Adding U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan—which other countries, mainly in Latin America, are likely to mimic, as was the case with the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital—will boost his case even further.
Trump’s aides, such as John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, must be delighted. The president just used the most powerful office in the world to directly undermine the inadmissibility of acquiring territory by force, a foundational pillar of the post-World War II international system. The precedent this could set is truly frightening. It means regional and global hegemons have an argument for redrawing maps again.
Right now, Russia will likely object to Trump’s decision, as it will bolster Israel’s position with Syria once the country is on its feet again. But in the longer term, Vladimir Putin will surely seize on this as further justification for the annexation of Crimea. He will argue that, unlike with Israel and the Golan Heights, Russia has a long-standing claim to Crimea and the annexation did not involve a mass transfer of inhabitants.
The international community, and even the Arab world, will react with far less outrage than it did when Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But the long-term ramifications for any sort of organized international system beyond “might makes right” are much deeper.
Trump’s decision destroys the negotiating basis for any future peace between Israel and Syria. It lays the groundwork for a return to a world without territorial integrity for smaller, weaker countries. That’s a tragedy. Doing all of this just so Netanyahu can get re-elected—and so the Christian Broadcasting Network can imply that Trump is, in the words of Elwood Blues, “on a mission from God”—makes Trump’s announcement almost comically stupid. But it’s far too dangerous to laugh at.