Analysis

Trump's Golan Heights Diplomatic Bombshell Was Bound to Drop. But Why Now?

Trump couldn't wait until Netanyahu joined him in Washington on Monday, and his calculated move right before the election could cause Israel damage

FILE Photo: U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after Trump's address at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017.
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Since no one is even trying to pretend any longer that Donald Trump isn’t intervening in Israel’s election on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s behalf, the only question left to ask following the U.S. president’s announcement that “it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights” concerns the timing.

Why now? Since Netanyahu is flying to Washington next week anyway, surely it would have made more sense for Trump to make the announcement standing by his side in the White House.

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You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to speculate that given the extremely intimate level of coordination between Trump and Netanyahu’s teams, the timing is no coincidence. For a possible reason why Trump didn’t wait for Netanyahu to arrive in Washington before lobbing his diplomatic bombshell, check out Netanyahu’s pale and worried features at the press conference on Wednesday when he stated that Iran has obtained embarrassing material from Benny Gantz’s phone.

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Netanyahu is petrified that the new revelations on his trading in shares in his cousin’s company, which netted him $4.3 million and may have a connection with the company’s dealings with the German shipyard from which Israel purchases its submarines, could dominate the last stage of the election campaign.

That’s why he so blatantly abused his position as the minister in charge of Israel’s intelligence services to claim he knew what Iran had on Gantz. He desperately needs to grab back the news agenda.

But the Gantz phone-hacking story, which leaked to the media last Thursday evening, has proved a damp squib. There is no credible evidence, except for the word of a panicking prime minister, that whoever hacked his phone, even assuming it was the Iranians, has anything to blackmail Gantz with.

So the next best thing is to get a friend with 59 million followers on Twitter to create a distraction. Conveniently, this happened just before the agenda-setting prime-time news shows on Israeli television.

And how useful that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is currently in Israel anyway and has just visited the Western Wall, accompanied by Netanyahu another diplomatic first as previously, senior U.S. officials, including Trump during his visit in May 2017, refrained from doing so together with Israeli politicians to avoid the impression that they were prejudging the final status of East Jerusalem.

A recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights is also the perfect political gesture as far as Netanyahu is concerned. The Golan isn’t the West Bank, and certainly not Gaza. There is near-complete consensus among Israelis today that under no circumstances should Israel relinquish its control over the strategic Heights. Certainly not following eight years of war within Syria, during which Iran and Hezbollah have entrenched their presence on Israel’s northern border. Netanyahu’s political rivals have absolutely no choice but to praise Trump for helping the Likud campaign; anything else would be unpatriotic.

They can’t even point out the basic fact that Trump’s gesture is empty — just as his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was. It won’t change the status of the Golan Heights in international law, and with the exception of a few client-states in Latin America, no other country is going to follow suit.

It could actually cause Israel diplomatic damage by focusing international attention on the Golan Heights, when there was absolutely no pressure on Israel to end its 51-year presence there anyway. Trump's tweet does not obligate the next president, and a reversal by a future U.S. administration would do more damage to Israel than the good that would come from Trump's recognition.

But none of that matters when all Netanyahu is fighting for is his political survival and possibly his very freedom, and he will use every possible advantage he can muster.

In 1981, Israel passed the Golan Law, unilaterally extending its sovereignty over the Golan Heights. A furious President Ronald Reagan responded by suspending the strategic alliance memorandum that had just been signed between the United States and Israel. The no less furious Prime Minister Menachem Begin hit back, shouting at U.S. Ambassador Sam Lewis: “Are we a vassal state? Are we a banana republic? Are we 14-year-old boys who have to have our knuckles slapped if we misbehave?”

In 2019, the United States is treating Israel as a vassal state and a banana republic by flagrantly interfering in its election. This time, though, the Israeli prime minister won’t be complaining.