Stepping again into the fraught territory of Middle Eastern politics, President Trump on Thursday reversed a long-standing American policy that treated Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights as temporary.
Trump wrote on Twitter: “After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!”
After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 21, 2019
The precise legal significance of Trump’s tweet was unclear, and its practical impact is limited. Israel has had military control of the territory for more than 50 years and extended its legal authority to it in 1981. But the tweet’s political meaning was clear to most observers, who saw it as a brazen effort on the part of the president to interfere in Israel’s election, to be held on April 9, putting his thumb on the scales in favor of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing a formidable challenge from his centrist political rivals.
The tweet followed growing speculation in both countries about such a move, even as presidential adviser Jared Kushner is still working on a comprehensive Mideast peace plan. On the American side, Sen. Lindsey Graham expressed his support for U.S. recognition of Israel’s annexation of the territory during a recent visit to Israel earlier this month, and Sens. Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton have both advocated for legislation to formally recognize the territory as part of Israel. Recently the State Department has begun referring to the territory as “Israeli-controlled” rather than “Israeli-occupied,” as it has done in the past.
On the Israeli side, Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, heads of the centrist Blue and White party, Netanyahu’s chief rivals in the current election, have also recently expressed support of the United States recognizing Israeli control over the 500 square miles of the Golan Heights Israel conquered in the Six-Day War in 1967. And so too, of course, has Netanyahu himself, who has advocated for U.S. recognition of Israel’s ownership of the Golan for years, including during a visit to the United States in 2015.
With Netanyahu facing multiple corruption investigations and at least one indictment, he faces in Lapid and Gantz the most serious threat to his reelection since he began his current decadelong tenure as prime minister. (He also served an earlier term from 1996 to 1999.) Netanyahu has run his reelection campaign largely on the message that he is indispensable to Israel’s security and to its position in the world, and he has made his close personal relationship with President Trump an integral part of his campaign — including in videos on social media and on prominent billboards showing the two leaders shaking hands. U.S. recognition of what has been called Israel’s “virtual annexation” of the Golan Heights would be more evidence of Netanyahu’s ability to leverage his relationship with Trump to deliver on long-sought Israeli goals — following Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and American withdrawal from the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, often referred to as “the Iran deal.”
Trump has made little secret of his preference for Netanyahu, who will meet with the president at the White House next week during a visit to the United States to speak to the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is currently in Israel, ostensibly to discuss U.S.-Israeli cooperation on Iran. After Trump’s announcement today, Pompeo and Netanyahu held a joint press conference at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, where Netanyahu praised Trump for his announcement regarding the Golan: “President Trump has just made history, I called him, I thanked him on behalf of the Israeli public. He’s done it again.” In the press conference, Netanyahu called the announcement of recognition a “Purim miracle,” referring to the Jewish holiday that commemorates the foiling of a 5th century B.C. plot to murder the Jews in the Persian Empire.
While U.S. recognition of the Golan Heights may raise concerns and objections from members of the international community in coming days, the territory also lacks the emotional significance that has made Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, such as the West Bank and Gaza, so explosive. Unlike those territories, which Israel also seized in the Six-Day War after an invasion by three Arab countries, the Golan is not central to the national identity of either Israelis or Palestinians, and so disputes over the territory lack the sharp ideological rifts that have defined disputes over the West Bank and Gaza. Israel prizes the region largely because its topography makes it important for national defense, and because of its fertile soil.
With no end to the Syrian Civil War in sight, and with Syria remaining territorially divided, few expected that Israel would return the Golan to Syria anytime soon: Israel sees the territory as an important buffer that enables it to prevent the civil war from spilling across its own borders. In the 1990s, Syria and Israel nearly reached a “land for peace” deal, in which Israel would have returned the land to Syria in exchange for a formal peace deal, but the agreement fell through at the last moment over a disagreement over minute adjustments to the border. In a move that was widely condemned by the international community — including both the United Nations and the United States — Israel extended Israeli law over the Golan Heights in 1981, marking the lowest point in the history of U.S.-Israeli relations. Now American recognition of Israeli control over the same territory has become a touchstone of the closest relationship ever between leaders of the two countries.
Ben Manson is an American journalist based in Israel and New York.
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