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Donald Trump’s Recognition of the Golan Heights and the United States’ Middle East Foreign Policy: Same Old?

When President Donald Trump suggested in a tweet that, after 52 years, it was time to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, it immediately brought back memories of when the Obama administration vetoed Mahmoud Abbas’ attempt at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to get the council to recognize a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders.

To recap, Abbas wanted the UNSC to recognize the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem as Palestine. Prior to the veto, this was the United States’ longstanding foreign policy on the matter. President Obama’s statement, that a negotiated solution is the United States’ foreign policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, effectively changed the policy to what it was prior to Abbas’ attempt at the UNSC.

This knocked the wind out of an already weak Palestinian Chairman and paved the way, much later on, for Trump’s ill-advised decision to recognize a unified Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the United States Embassy to Jerusalem. As we saw in both instances, this led to more violence and fewer negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In essence, both Presidents enhanced the very real possibility of a civil war within Israel.

Trump’s second foray into Israeli politics, his decision to recognize the Golan Heights under Israeli sovereignty, is likewise dangerous – setting a precedent that could seriously destabilize the region. The push for recognition did not come from inside the White House. Instead, the Israeli establishment, along with allies in the United States, had been lobbying members of the US Congress, the National Security Council, and the State Department for well over a year. In effect, it was due to ongoing pressure from these Israeli officials and advocates in the United States that President Trump came to the decision to recognize Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Syrian Golan. It just so happened that the decision came at an opportune time for the current, embattled Israeli Prime Minister, just before the upcoming Israeli elections.

Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights

Up until Trump’s decision, Israel’s claim of the Golan Heights did not rest on any religious or legal claim. Rather, it was mainly for strategic and security purposes and based solely on the concept of “might makes right.” Israel’s argument for maintaining its control over the territory was simply that because its army was able to wrest the Syrian Golan from Syria, it was theirs—a strange concept for international diplomacy. What allowed Israel to occupy the land in the past was that the United States and Europe had, for decades, not fully considered the Syrian government to be the legitimate government or even a legitimate state.

Implications of the US recognizing the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights

Today’s Middle Eastern borders are all based on colonial lines set out in the secretive Sykes-Picot Agreement—divvying up the Middle East between the French and British Empires following World War I. The changes (and, in some instances, wars) since the redistribution have all been for economic, ethnic, or religious reasons, except for the case of the Israeli-Syrian border. There, the division is based on the greater strength of Israel’s army—that was true in both the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars. Yet, that will not always be the case.

Thus, the implication of this decision to recognize Israel’s claim is that the legitimacy of borders all over the Middle East can now be challenged. So, since the United States has come up with this new policy, which claims that “might makes right” all over the Middle East, then why shouldn’t Egypt conquer Saudi Arabia? Why shouldn’t Iran conquer Jordan? Some countries have stronger militaries than others and those stronger countries can simply take over the smaller countries’ resources and occupy their land.

The implications for the Syrian Civil War

What the civil war in Syria has taught us is that Israel’s military argument, that the Syrian Golan is of strategic importance, is false. In fact, modern warfare has eliminated the importance of elevation and incline. Rather, what the area is useful for is legitimacy, diplomacy and the loyalty of the local population.

Israel has been deeply involved throughout the Syrian Civil War, supporting, among other groups, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (or more commonly known as Jabhat al-Nusra), which is loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda. Israel had long been providing the jihadi organization with various materials. However, what is most noticeable is that the Syrian Golan has played no role in protecting Israel’s border from the fallout of the Syrian Civil War. When Jabhat al-Nusra was making territorial gains and driving back their opponents, it started a rebellion inside Israel, especially in the occupied Syrian Golan. That rebellion forced the Israeli military to stop supporting Jabhat al-Nusra because the political ramifications were too much. If Israel continued to send in mercenaries or proxies to kill Druze citizens in Syria, when the families of these citizens under Israeli control refused to accept it, the political consequences would have been dire.

The repercussions of annexation

Whether President Trump understands his decision or not is anyone’s guess. Yet, his recognition of the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights only escalates an already tense situation between Tel Aviv on one side and the two sides of the Syrian Civil War, Damascus and Tehran on the other. Further, it gives no incentive for Israel to negotiate some sort of peace accord with both Syria and Iran—something that is absolutely vital if tensions are to be reduced both in Syria and in the region. In his 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump correctly noted that the United States should shift away from a “regime change” foreign policy towards fighting international terrorism—something that is necessary to ensure stability in Syria and the region. But, the decision to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights does anything but fight international terrorism.

This article was originally published on the Valdai Discussion Club’s website. To view the original article in English, click here. To view the original article in Russian, click here.

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