With less than three weeks before Israelis head to the polls, Trump seems set on handing Netanyahu a quick political boost as the latter seeks to retain the premiership. Last Thursday, Trump tweeted that the United States should give its blessing to Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, annexed by Israel in 1981. Several U.S. officials endorsed the tweet, indicating a forthcoming official policy decision.
Yet while it’s an easy score for Netanyahu’s reelection campaign and sure to win praise among Trump’s base, it also upends long standing American positions on territorial integrity. This portends more troubling developments abroad - with little measurable return either for the United States or for Israel.
Despite being a launching pad for Syrian attacks in Israel’s early years, the Golan has been one of the country’s quietest frontiers for decades - since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Yet it was never without its own controversies. Around 100,000 Golan residents fled the area when Israel captured it from Syria in 1967. Unlike Druze Israelis elsewhere in the country, most of the remaining Golan Druze still reject Israeli sovereignty and the majority declined citizenship.
The 2018 municipal elections marked the first time Golan Druze have voted for their local leadership since Israel took the Heights, sparking protests in some quarters. U.S. recognition has already triggered pro-Assad demonstrations on the Israeli side of the Golan, and risks further inflaming these tensions.
The horrors of the Syrian civil war and the Assad government’s crackdown have well eclipsed any suffering endured by the Golan’s population during the Six Day War. The issue also lacks the emotional resonance of the Palestinian question. Within Israel, the Golan is not the subject of national controversy like the West Bank and Gaza are.
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The area was formally annexed nearly 40 years ago, and an overwhelming majority of Israelis support retaining it for security, not ideological reasons. Netanyahu’s main challenger, Benny Gantz, recently declared he would never surrender the Golan. To most Israelis, this is simply stating the obvious.
The international community has not exactly been hectoring Israel to find a permanent solution for the Golan, either.
The U.S. and its European allies have acquiesced to Israeli control, especially since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011. The Syrian government and its Iranian backers are the most vocal opponents of continued Israeli control of the Golan, yet there has been no serious effort even on their part to compel Israel to return the territory. Russia, which has been waging war in Syria for four years on Assad’s behalf, is also relatively mum.
None of this means outside actors aren’t watching pending U.S. recognition of Golan annexation with great interest. Russia, in particular, will be interested in this apparent unilateral deviation from international consensus. Indeed, the Kremlin has exploited similar American actions in the past to use as precedent in pursuit of its own revisionist agenda.
When the U.S. mulled recognizing Kosovo’s independence from Serbia in early 2008, Russia gave repeated indications that it would treat such an decision as pretext for action on neighboring Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions which Moscow contested. Kosovo - with American and European military assistance - had long ago de facto separated from Belgrade.
But recognizing Kosovo’s sovereignty had immediate practical ramifications elsewhere: officials in Moscow were eager to use Kosovo as a talking point when Russian tanks rolled through the Roki Tunnel into Georgia in August 2008.
Today Russia still waging an expansionist war in eastern Ukraine, and Moscow remains subject to U.S. sanctions. Accordingly, Washington should not rush to put itself in contravention of UN Security Council resolutions on the Golan that Washington itself sponsored (including 1967’s Resolution 242, which called for peace "in secure and recognized boundaries" and Israel's withdrawal from territories captured in the Six Day War, and 1981’s Resolution 497) and the broader principle of non-recognition of territory unilaterally acquired through force of arms.
Closer to home, far-right Israeli leaders will also take note as they seek legitimacy for for institutionalizing their claims on the West Bank.
There is also the potential for negative fallout among America’s Arab allies.
Even at the height of the Gulf states’ opposition to Bashar Assad’s government, the optics of America recognizing Israeli annexation of what is legally the territory of an Arab country would be terrible. Now, some, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have doubled back on their previous challenge to the Syrian regime and are re-establishing ties. Golan recognition would place them in an awkward position vis-a-vis the United States.
Meanwhile, an American move will doubtlessly provide fuel for the propaganda machines in Damascus and Tehran, which continue to pedal the ridiculous notion that "liberating" the Golan was among Assad’s aims in the brutal suppression of the Syrian uprising. None of this helps the Syrian opposition, now forced to match the Assad regime's patriotic credentials.
And while the United States cannot be held entirely responsible for how leaders in Russia, Syria, and elsewhere will twist its policies, U.S. policymakers ought to consider whether there is a compelling American interest being advanced by formal recognition that is worth the risk.
At the very least, Kosovo's declaration of independence was legal under international law, and later led the country's governing multinational trusteeship to hand opver full control to the local authorities. But Israel’s control of the Golan is already a fact, and in no way under threat: there is therefore nothing for the U.S. to gain from this move, and much to lose.
So what was the impetus for Trump’s tweet on Golan recognition (and the likely official American move to follow)? It’s simple: securing Netanyahu’s reelection.
Israelis will vote on their next government on April 9. For Trump and Netanyahu, the timing of Golan recognition was deliberate. No mainstream Israeli politician, left or right, was ever questioning Israel’s presence in the region, but Netanyahu and his rivals in Kachol Lavan have breathed new life into the issue of it by running on Golan recognition in the current campaign.
Raising the question of recognition from with a presidential tweet and last week’s visit to the Golan by U.S. Ambassador David Friedman (himself a representative of the administration) and prominent pro-Trump Senator Lindsey Graham adds artificial urgency to the issue in the midst of a critical Knesset campaign. However, as the incumbent, only Netanyahu is really poised to reap the benefits, a fact of which Gantz’s camp is painfully aware.
Images of the prime minister’s trip to the Golan last week with U.S. dignitaries will surely make it into Likud campaign spots. One of Netanyahu’s campaign spots consists entirely of clips of Donald Trump speaking favorably of the Israeli leader.
Even if Golan recognition remains the subject of a presidential tweet and does not actually materialize, Likud will still tie it to Netanyahu’s diplomacy, including his trip to Washington next week, where he will visit the White House and be feted by thousands of adoring fans at AIPAC’s annual policy conference.
The Golan move fits perfectly into a strategy of highlighting strong ties with the United States through a series of moves that are both highly visible and mostly symbolic. For his part, Trump will be sure to showcase Golan recognition alongside the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem in front of his supporters, especially members of the pro-Israel Evangelical community.
Indeed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was quick to attach religious significance to the whole issue of defending Israel by suggesting that Trump had been sent by God to protect the Jewish people and the Jewish state from Iran.
Indeed, recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan seems to be just the next step in the Trump administration’s efforts to out-hawk even the most hawkish Israeli government.
No one is coming to evict Israel from the Golan Heights. Rather than volunteer their efforts to the next Likud campaign ad, American policymakers should consider whether conferring recognition on Israel’s annexation of the area is really worth the headache.
That Trump is posturing on the issue in the lead up to an Israeli election shows his first priority is not advancing American interests but instead, transparently, giving a personal assist to a political ally.
Evan Gottesman is the Associate Director of Policy and Communications at Israel Policy Forum. Twitter: @EvanGottesman
Abe Silberstein writes on Israeli politics and U.S. - Israel relations from New York. Twitter: @abesilbe