Trump's Golan Heights Declaration: What Does It Mean and What Happens Now

In one tweet, U.S. President Donald Trump shook a decades-long international status quo on the Syrian territory occupied by Israel in 1967. Here's what you need to know

FILE PHOTO:  Druze protesters participate in a rally in Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights, demanding the return of the territory captured by Israel in 1967, near the Syrian border, February 14, 2014.
Oded Balilty,AP

U.S. President Donald Trump declared Thursday that "after 52 years, it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights." Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the "historical" announcement.

How does the U.S. view the Golan Heights?

The current U.S. policy holds that the territories Israel conquered in 1967 — including the Golan Heights — are subject to diplomatic and legal controversy and are not recognized as official Israeli territories. This policy can be changed in two ways:

Legislation in Congress, as pushed by some Republican lawmakers in recent weeks, that would pave the way for an official American recognition of the Golan Heights as part of the State of Israel. The proposed legislation has yet to make headway in Congress, but the president's tweet may bolster its chances.

The second method to alter the long-standing U.S. policy is for the president to issue an official directive to the State Department to change its policy. The tweet does not constitute such an official edict, but it holds clues as to the president's future intentions.

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What is the significance of Trump's declaration?

The main significance of U.S. recognition — if indeed it becomes official — is mostly symbolic, as Israel and Syria have not negotiated the future of the Golan Heights since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011. Such a decision would also not have any real ramifications for Israeli citizens residing in the Golan, since the United States already makes no such distinction regarding visas and diplomatic services.

file photo: U.S. President Donald Trump hugs Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu upon his arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport, Lod, Israel, May 22, 2017.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

What will happen now?

Trump and Netanyahu will meet in Washington on Monday, about two weeks before the Israeli election on April 9. Fox News reported Thursday that Trump may sign a presidential order during the visit recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Later Thursday, faced with questions over an "election gift" to Netanyahu, Trump denied his declaration was aimed at aiding the prime minister and said even Netanyahu's rivals support the move.

How did the world react to the declaration?

Compared with the reaction to Trump's decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the international response to Trump's Golan declaration has been fairly feeble. In response to a question by Haaretz on Friday, the European Union said: "The position of the EU has not changed. The European Union, in line with international law, does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967, including the Golan Heights, and does not consider them to be part of Israel’s territory." Germany and France also released statements countering Trump's announcement.

Denouncements also came from across the Arab world, and a senior official in the Syrian Foreign Ministry said the declaration was "irresponsible" and confirms "the blind bias of the United States to the Zionist entity," referring to Israel.

In the U.S. media, reactions were mixed. Pro-Israel organizations, as well as Republican lawmakers, welcomed the move, while many Democrats criticized the electoral assistance to Netanyahu. Critics also said U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights would allow Russia to similarly claim it has the right to annex territories in eastern Ukraine.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli soldiers sit in a position on the border with Syria on the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights as smoke rises following explosions of mortar shells, July 16, 2013.
Ariel Schalit,AP

David Axelrod, former senior political adviser to President Barack Obama, tweeted Thursday that Trump is throwing Netanyahu a life preserver ahead of the election. In contrast, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who recently visited Israel and toured the Golan Heights with Netanyahu, tweeted that  "President Trump’s decision to recognize the Golan as part of Israel is strategically wise and overall awesome. Well done, Mr. President!"

Will the declaration upend the regional status quo?

Despite the flurry of condemnations from the Arab world, it is doubtful if Trump's announcement will lead to practical steps such as sanctions against Israel — similar to the U.S. and European sanctions slapped on Russia after the annexation of Crimea five year ago, or the punitive steps taken by Europe against Turkey following its invasion of Cyprus 45 years ago.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed last October that "any change in the status of the Golan Heights made outside the framework of a United Nations resolution would be considered a violation of existing agreements." He did not, however, detail if and how Russia would respond to a U.S.-led shift in the status of the Golan Heights. 

On Friday, Russia's Foreign Ministry stated that any change in the status of the Golan Heights would be a direct violation of United Nations decisions.