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The Path to Trump's Golan Declaration Starts With a Texan Entrepreneur

America's energy independence has enabled Trump to shatter foreign policy taboos without concern for angry reactions from the Persian Gulf states. But will other countries follow suit?

Aluf Benn
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Men in construction hats are seen aboard Chevron's Petronius oil platform, located 161 kilometers off the coast of New Orleans, Gulf of Mexico, June 3, 2008.
Men in construction hats are seen aboard Chevron's Petronius oil platform, located 161 kilometers off the coast of New Orleans, Gulf of Mexico, June 3, 2008.Credit: \ Jessica Rinaldi/ REUTERS
Aluf Benn

To this day, there is one person responsible for American policy in the Middle East who has not received the recognition he deserves from Israel’s leaders. It’s George Mitchell. No, not the former American Senator who once tried and failed to mediate between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It’s George Mitchell, the late Texan engineer and entrepreneur, who built his wealth on oil drilling.

Contrary to the prevailing view in the industry at the time, Mitchell insisted that it was possible to extract energy from rock at a commercially reasonable cost. He tried his approach over and over until about 20 years ago, when he achieved a technological breakthrough that led to the commercial production of oil and natural gas through the use of fracking.

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Mitchell’s discovery has turned the United States in recent years into the largest oil producing country in the world. It has provided the country with energy independence and has freed the Americans from their frightful dependence on the black gold of the Middle East. Concerns over the depletion of oil reserves have dissipated. Energy crises went from the stuff of intelligence assessments to the history books, and the bad news from the sector was replaced by optimism over increased American oil exports.

The results were quickly reflected in American foreign policy as well. The American trend of going to war and dispatching forces to the Middle East was replaced by operations to bring the troops home. America’s policy in the region was freed from the gnawing grip of Saudi Arabia, which had controlled the global oil market for decades and had enjoyed major influence in Washington.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama took advantage of the opportunity in the energy sector to draw closer to Iran, at Saudi Arabia and Israel’s expense, but he didn’t manage to achieve a fundamental change in Washington’s relations with Tehran beyond the nuclear agreement that Iran signed with the world powers in 2015.

Last year, U.S. President Donald Trump decided to move the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and then on Thursday, he recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights. In both instances, he shattered taboos that had prevailed for many years in American foreign policy without concern for angry reactions from the Persian Gulf states, or boycott threats and the mass burning of the Stars and Stripes in Arab capitals that at one time would have been considered an obligatory response to unilateral American steps for Israel. Trump has been in no hurry to issue his promised Middle East peace plan, to propose Israeli concessions to the Palestinians or to adopt the 2002 Saudi peace plan in exchange for the perks that he has bestowed upon Prime Minister Netanyahu.

After returning to the Prime Minister’s Office a decade ago, Netanyahu spoke about the importance of reducing oil dependence for foreign policy and even encouraged Israeli research on developing alternative energy. He was hoping that weaning the dependence on oil would reduce Arab diplomatic influence in the West. His strategic analysis has shown to be on the mark, but his technological assessment was overly pessimistic.

It never would have occurred to him at the time that American energy independence was already just around the corner, and that even while he was in office, it would transform the global political situation. It’s only fitting, with historic irony, that a main road running from north to south through the Golan Heights is called the Petroleum Road.

What will happen now? The transfer of the American embassy to Jerusalem has not been followed by a wave of embassy relocations by other countries. And one can assume that Trump’s tweet recognizing the Golan as an inseparable part of Israel – which recalls the campaign on behalf of Israeli communities in the Golan Heights that led Menachem Begin’s government to pass the Golan annexation law in 1981 – won’t prompt the European Union and the other world powers to issue similar statements of recognition. They will stick to their longstanding policy: Ruling out normalization of the Israeli occupation from the Six-Day War without consent from the Arab side.

On the other hand, on the domestic front, American recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan will have far-reaching consequences. The right wing will step up the pressure to apply Israeli law to Area C of the West Bank, where all of the Jewish settlements are and where there are few Palestinians. Netanyahu and defense officials, who up until now have ruled out formal annexation and have preferred creeping Israeli control, will find it more and more difficult to claim that “the world won’t allow it."

West Bank settlers and their supporters will ask why Trump would recognize the Israeli communities of Katzrin and Ein Zivan in the Golan Heights but not Ariel and Beit El in the West Bank. In the Golan, Israel had shifted its position from one of territorial compromise to annexation – and it was successful.

That will be a subject of discussion in the Israeli government’s next term, and Israel will continue to be mired in the perpetuation of the conflict with its neighbors instead of finding a way out of it.

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