Two weeks before the polls open in Israel on April 9, U.S. President Donald Trump gave his friend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the ultimate gift on Monday: the Golan Heights, brightly wrapped and with a bow on top.
But Israel’s media and the country’s voters were far from being in the festive mood that they were trying to project from the White House. Israel was much busier readying bomb shelters opened nationwide following the escalation of tensions with the Gaza Strip. Therefore Trump’s festive signature on the presidential document recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, 52 years after its capture from the Syrians, became a tree falling in the forest for Netanyahu that no one heard. In the United States as well, the focus of attention was elsewhere, with headlines dealing endlessly with Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s report on the Trump campaign and very little devoted to chronicling the historic change being made in U.S. foreign policy.
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The proclamation signed by Trump states that Israel captured the Golan in 1967 to defend itself from external threats. Trump was surrounded at the signing by a battery of senior figures: Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, Middle East envoy Jonathan Greenblatt, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer. Left outside the frame was the only woman there, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.
As Israeli headlines focused on the fears over the prospect of another in the infinite rounds of violence in Gaza, there were grounds to wonder whether this signature of Trump’s was the opening for ongoing Israeli annexation and the unilateral acceptance of Israeli sovereignty in the rest of the territory it captured in 1967. Such a turning point would certainly merit the label of “historic.”
From the standpoint of international law, the capture of the Golan Heights is no different from that of the West Bank. But it has been viewed differently, mainly for other reasons: The number of civilians under occupation in the Golan is much smaller than in the West Bank and they are entitled to full Israeli citizenship. Israel has carried out the “application of Israeli law” in the Golan region (but Israel has always avoided acknowledging that this constitutes annexation in practice). And settlers who love to speak warmly about the Golan Heights never settled there en masse.
So for these and other reasons, there is widespread Israeli support for such recognition of Israeli sovereignty there. It’s easy for the region’s legal status to get lost amid the admiration of its greenery and lack of population. All of these factors do not change the reality, however.
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Officially this is occupied land the same as the West Bank and nearly all Israeli governments have engaged in continuous contacts in the hopes of achieving a peace agreement with Syria based on the understanding that this would involve territorial concessions in a part of the Golan. If the trend toward recognizing annexation continues, along with despair over efforts to find partners for peace, it won’t be long before the question of annexing the West Bank and perhaps Gaza will also arise. And in fact a few hours after the signing ceremony, there were repeated calls to the effect that “conquering the Strip is always an option,” this time on the part of so-called left-wing candidate Benny Gantz.
From an emotional standpoint, it’s clear why Israel is excited by Trump’s step. As is customary in such emotional circumstances, this step is mainly symbolic and has no practical significance. From a legal standpoint and a standpoint of principle, it is part of a dangerous historical process through which Israel is forgoing the possibility of achieving a future peace agreement with its neighbors.
Netanyahu told the Knesset in 2015, while explaining that he didn’t want a binational state, that he has been asked whether Israel would have to live forever by the sword and his reply was affirmative. He added that he thought Israel would have to control all the territories for the foreseeable future.
Trump has now recognized this approach. Israel has despaired and given up on diplomatic dialogue in exchange for unilateral steps and establishing facts on the ground. Even if an outstretched hand is extended some day from the other side, it will be difficult to take a step back and shake that hand.