Golan Heights; Al-Jawlān; Ramat Ha-Golan. These are the many names of one of the most hotly contested spots on Earth. As a geographic region, it is a hilly area overlooking the Jordan Rift Valley; as a geopolitical region, it manifests virtually the entirety of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The region was an undisputed part of the territory of Syria, until the Six-Day War of June 1967. Israel’s overwhelming victory provided the newly-born state with remarkable spoils of war – among them, the strategically significant Golan Heights (as well as the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank, Old City of Jerusalem). After retaining control over the Golan Heights, Israel moved to annex the region in 1981, formally bringing it under its control.
Such an annexation, given that it was premised on an illegal use of force, is violative of the Charter of the United Nations – and by extension, international law. Technically therefore, Golan heights continues to be considered Syrian territory under international law. This position has long been maintained by the vast majority of the international community including the United States, until March 2019.
On March 21th 2019, President Trump endorsed Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights with a tweet. This was followed by an Executive Order signed on Mar 26, that officially changed American policy on the subject and now forms a part of the official Federal Register of the United States of America.
This statement is worth discussing not only because of the modalities through which it occurred – in an era where international matters are discussed on the infosphere, this may not come as a surprise! – but also because it will likely exacerbate the ever-high tensions that plague the Middle Eastern region. Trump’s decision swims against the tide of both international norms (Israel’s annexation of the Golan heights was never internationally recognized) and past US foreign policy (which was based on a principle of non-recognition, i.e. avoid taking a position on sovereignty over a disputed territory).
Nonetheless, we should not regard Trump’s decision as abrupt, as there have been several – albeit less significant – signs that hinted towards this decision. This year, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported a stark shift in the semantics employed by the Trump administration. In its annual human rights report, the US State Department recently referred to the Golan Heights as "Israeli-controlled territory" – and no longer as "occupied territory". Furthermore, last November, the US voted against an annual symbolic UN resolution that comes close to condemn Israel’s presence in the Golan Heights.
Netanyahu did not blush before hiding his gratitude towards President Trump, as can be inferred from his tweets: “At a time when Iran seeks to use Syria as a platform to destroy Israel, President Trump boldly recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Thank you President Trump!”
Israel has several reasons to rejoice over this recognition of sovereignty over the Golan heights. First, given that the US recognizes the region as Israel’s sovereign land, any attempt by any Arab power – particularly, Iran – to destabilize Israeli control over the region will be treated by the US as an attack on Israel. This brings with it immense support and an effective deterrent to misadventures in the region. Second, the area is a socio-economic hotbed for its fertile land, and its use as a major source of water for country. Third, the vantage point offered by the hills allows Israel to keep two frontiers in check. On the one hand, it enables Israel to monitor Syrian troop movements, and on the other, it acts as a deterrent for Hezbollah’s expansion.
Map Courtesy BBC
Fourth, it practically guaranteed a win for Netanyahu in the April 9 elections – which he did go on to win for a fifth time. This was despite him facing an indictment for bribery. His political outfit, the Likud party, was feeling increasingly threatened by the opposition (the center-right Blue and White party). Trump’s announcement had a strong political and symbolic significance, insofar as it sent a message that the US unambiguously stands by Israel; giving bragging rights to Netanyahu’s electoral campaign.
However, America’s unprecedented decision was criticized by Russia, Syria, Turkey, Iran and many European countries. Many regard Trump’s decision as a political gift to Netanyahu. The American President denied these allegations, arguing that his decision was made on the ground of security reasons, and that it was not at all related to Israel’s election. Trump’s justification, however, seems feeble, analysts suggest that this decision may even jeopardize Israel’s security. Israel’s nemesis – most notably Iran and Hezbollah – may use Israel’s acquisition of the territory in violation of international norms as a pretext to intensify their attacks and terror operations.
Trump’s decision may also be seen as utilitarian, as it accomplishes two goals simultaneously. One, it mobilizes an influential (if not numerically sizeable) American-Jewish community in favor of Trump. Two, it may make up for American troops recent withdrawal from Syria, which increased Israel’s vulnerability to armed attacks. Another argument brought to the fore by opponents of Israel’s annexation of the Golan heights is that it provides an official stamp of approval to Israel’s violation of international law; more specifically, being a unilateral decision – rather than a diplomatic negotiation – Israel’s annexation represents a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and of UN security council resolution 242, which stressed the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”.
Martin S. Indyk, a former peace negotiator, argues this decision would provide other leaders with a pretext for forcible annexation of territory (e.g. Russian annexation of Crimea). What is worse, Palestinians fear that the US recognition of Israel’s claim over the Golan heights will pave the way to the annexation of another piece of land that was occupied after the six-day war – West Bank. Palestinian leadership has accused Trump of being the most biased US president in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinian concerns are largely understandable; Netanyahu’s new government comes on the back of a promise to extend Israeli sovereignty over West Bank – this is a promise he will now want to fulfill, and the Golan Heights precedent would give him an encouraging sign.
Thus, while Trump may have made his decision with a utilitarian motive of attracting Jewish voters in America, and providing Israel with a consolation for removing American troops, by endorsing Israel’s forcible annexation of the Golan heights, he has blatantly accepted and encouraged the asymmetry between Israel and the Arab World. This will further into accepting the disparity existing between Israeli Jews – who enjoy the benefits of full citizenship and social rights – and Palestinians – who face countless discriminations and abuses, ranging from not having the right to vote in East Jerusalem, to military dictatorship in the West Bank, and so on. At the bare minimum, it will make the American position as an independent arbiter of the region untenable, particularly when seen with the past decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
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About the Author
Born and raised in the small island of Sardinia, Chiara holds a Bachelor in International Economics and Management from Bocconi University and an MSc in Social Policy and Development from the LSE. Her research interests and past experience revolve around migration, gender, social well-being, and environmental health. A voracious reader, tenacious half-marathon runner, and with a forma mentis that is pillared on insatiable curiosity and critical thinking, she has an undying love for the art of writing.